Can We Save Recycling — By Recycling the Idea?

A good idea has gotten lost in the execution details. Let’s simplify and do better

I like recycling. I bet you do, too. What’s not to like? It is good for the environment. It allows us to participate in a good thing as citizens. It can create jobs and new technology. It’s the right thing to do. And yet…

The hodge-podge of recycling protocols has made it difficult to figure out if we are “doing it right.” Every community, every business has their own definitions and criteria. On an average day, I can expect to have half a dozen opportunities to recycle at different locations. If travelling, those opportunities are over much greater distances and locations. And no two seem to be alike.

I have attended national conventions for a group that takes recycling very, very seriously.  Their goal is always to have a zero ecological footprint from their event. How does one do that? Well, one solution is to have a bank of – I am not making this up – of 8 different types of recycling bins.

Sound confusing? Not to worry! A handy staff team is there to help you figure out how to sort your trash from lunch. Should not take more than 5 minutes or so. I saw people slinking around the corner, looking for a simpler solution that would allow them to move on.

But even in more typical settings, it can be confusing. Some recycling bins accept anything recyclable. Some take only cans or bottles. Some take glass bottles, but not if dirty or of mixed colors.

Some take cardboard, but not mixed with newspapers – others don’t care how you mix them. Pretty well no one takes plastic bags or styrofoam food containers (time to be rid of these in the market place).

I recently looked up recycling guidelines for three major population centers. They were significantly different from each other. Some seemed to be tests for determining how dedicated you are to this mission. How does the following sound to you?

Place all paper and cardboard in CLEAR plastic bags or rigid containers labeled MIXED PAPER. Mark these with green recycling decalsFlatten and bundle or bag corrugated cardboard boxes.

Most people would do at least some of the above. A lot of people would not do all. More than a few would skip the recycling effort.

I lived in a major urban area not long ago that has a pretty decent recycling program. One had to do some separation, but it seemed manageable to most residents. Recycling volume was not bad. But the adjacent county took a completely different approach. They invested in a great recycling system. The system could automatically sort almost anything that appeared on the conveyer belt. It could clean, crush, etc. as needed with minimal human intervention.

The recycling bins given to residents were large. Instructions were to put everything recyclable (and that was a long and varied list) in the one bin. When the trucks picked them up, they read a bar code on the bin. That bar code reader recorded the source residence and weight of the recyclables.

Every so often, residents received a thank you note for recycling. That note included a rebate on their trash services bill, based on the amount they recycled. Use of this system was quite high. The county had much more material to sell as recycled materials. Everyone won.

So here is my challenge.

  • Get ourselves more standardized nation-wide. Settle what makes up recycling, so we are all encouraged and comfortable doing more of it.
  • Make it easy to do right. Use technology and rewards incentives to encourage participation.
  • Tell officials this is important enough to spend a our tax money to buy recycling systems that do it all and do it well.

Let’s not be trashy about this, OK?

Clontz-117tx225pix  Bill Clontz

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4 replies to Can We Save Recycling — By Recycling the Idea?

  1. Thank you for your recycling insight to which I totally agree. I am fortunate the community I live in provides many recycling centers and is adopting curbside recycling. Years ago I researched recycling and read to first be mindful of packaging when making purchses. I’ve cut down on having to recycle jars by making much of my own food such as peanut butter, jams, etc. We have a garden, pick berries from a local berry farm and store those and other local fruit and vegetables bought in bulk. We eat healthier this way; it’s fun family time, and this food is superior to grocery store bought. My son is a homebrewer and we recycle bottles for our own use. I’ve requested less junk mail to cut down on the deluge of paper delivered to my home. The church I attend has recycling dumpsters on its premises which are convenient for us and provide a small income to church, a win-win. Being selective on what comes into my home saves me time on the backend of recycling and is an improved lifestyle for my household.

    • Excellent point about junk mail, an area I failed to mention. For those interested, there are lots of good tips one can find in a Google search on ways to eliminate these coming to your home. There is even a National Do Not Mail list. I used a software program for awhile that did a really good job of cutting back on this stuff as well.

  2. The real problem is not so much how and what to recycle but the great excess of one way containers according to a recent issue of Scientific American I believe. Sure the market for a variety of recycled materials is currently iffy and it seems to me that the costs of recycling, because of the lack of markets (read China) are likely greater than revenue generated. So what to do with the collected tons of paper, cardboard, glass, etc.? Leave them in huge heaps or bury the materials?

    • Yes, indeed. I notice especially mail order items are often WAY over packaged. Definitely a part of the problem.

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