Saturday, October 27, 2007

Is Recycling That Hard?

Friday is trash day in my neck of the woods. So each Thursday night, I, like all of my neighbors, go through that time-honored tradition of dragging barrels out to the curb. In our case, it's more accurate to say barrel (single). For a family of four, I take a little pride in putting out one barrel's worth of trash. After filling up our green and blue recycling bins (with proper sorting of materials, of course) and dumping all our organics and food scraps in the compost pile, we're only generating one or two bags of trash each week. Not bad considering the average American throws away 4.5 pounds of trash a day.

What I'm still amazed at though is how many households just have a barrel at the curb. No green or blue recycling bins to brighten up the scene. So my question is: Why are people not recycling? Is it sheer ignorance? Laziness? A combination of both, or something else altogether?

When I was part of Tiverton's Recycling Committee a few years back we struggled with that same question. Granted, I’ll say that at the surface you do see more bins out there with each passing year, but we can do – and need to do – better. According to the EPA, only 32% of America’s waste is recycled.

Really, it comes down to changing behavior. Of course, that's easier said then done. Whether you're trying to eat healthier, start exercising, or throwing your soda bottles in a blue bin instead of the trash, the premise is all the same. I think the key to all of this is to start early and have good role models.

The logical place to start is at our schools. That requires that recycling (paper, plastic, aluminum at a minimum) be mandatory. End of story. From a business point of view, it makes good economic sense to recycle and reduce your waste hauling costs. (The Tiverton School Committee can't even figure out Contracting 101, so improving recycling is not even hitting their radar.) But once that problem is taken care of, we should start in kindergarten and teach our kids the why's and how's of it all. Put a bin in each classroom. Give them gold stars for tossing their stuff away correctly. Reward the behavior and it becomes second nature. We all want to receive praise and accolades.

You know what happens next? Domino effect. Kids go home and give their parent(s) guilt trips, wear at them in that way that kids do until the breaking point. Before long, that household has bins at the curb on trash day. Or maybe they are recycling more. At the end of the day, we have our next generation being part of the solution instead of the problem.

So, I ask you: Why is recycling that hard?


twohands said...

Thanks Bill I thought I was the only one who spied on my neighbor's garbage to see if they recycled or not. On trash days I look out my front window to see that my neighbor across the street has no bins out by the curb. I wonder, "really you used no plastic or paper all week?" and then i spot the jugs of milk, cardboard containers etc.. peeking through the (many) trash bags and it kinda just breaks my heart. And I too think to myself, "is it that hard?"

Anonymous said...

I agree that it needs to start with the schools- how can we teach to recycle when they can't even recycle paper at school. I currently have a high school student group in Westport that wants to start recycling- are there any thoughts on how we can help accomplish their goals. For a company to come and pick up their paper recycling it costs money- where are we going to find the money year after year to keep the project going?~ Shelli


Hey Shelli -- I've come across quite a few online resources around how to get a school recyling project off the ground. Kids Recycle is one of the better ones. Lots of info for both students and teachers.

The MA DEP has state-specific info too.

Another good contact for you might be Gunther Wellenstein. He's the Recycling Coordinator//Solid Waste Manager in Lowell, MA. Also writes in the local Lowell newspaper. Great resource, I'm sure. Email at

In terms of funding, administrators need to see past the short-term start-up costs and look at the long-term operational savings. Recycling more decreases the amount being hauled away as trash (which typlcally has a higher tipping fee associated with it).

Short-term pain, long-term gain... Talk soon.

michiganmiked said...

With curbside collection in my town (Warren), there is no excuse for lazy people NOT to recycle. Yet it still happens. My own neighbor tries (at times) but still attempts to recycle improper materials (soda/frozen food boxes, detergent lids, greasy pizza boxes, etc.). Information/education is one area where the state and towns seem to be lacking. Even that goofy grocery bag recycling TV ad is damn near indecipherable!

One solution: make it mandatory. Pass an ordinance and impose penalties. The town of Derry, NH (and others) did so years ago. And personally knowing people in that town, the penalties are/were real and it forced them to be conscious of their wastefulness.

Ordinance here:

Residents in towns where their recycling falls short of the state minimum are simply costing their towns (and in turn, themselves) money. I don't like namecalling but they are simply ignorant fools.

Anonymous said...

Did you know there are actually towns where you have to pay to recycle? Crazy, I know. And those are probably the towns full of those poor, uneducated people that eat mostly processed foods and throw away all the poisonous plastic. Absolutely, we should be spying on our neighbors recycling habits and just like we learned in school... use peer pressure and bullying to get what you want. And, you are absolutely right about teaching kids in school to recycle. Parents these days are absolutely inept at raising their own kids and public schools have proven time and again that they can provide awesome results. Recycling should definitely not start at home. I would also be interested in seeing legislators pass laws that enable kids to rat out their own parents for not recycling. Hey, those methods have worked in the past. It also goes without saying, more legislation and less personal responsibility is so effective. I mean how else can we get all these idiots to start pulling their weight? And, when I say "idiots" I am in no way referring to you or the readers of this blog. Thanks for the great discussion!