Editor’s note: I originally published this post on Intent.com
November 15th is America Recycles Day! As Robin noted on Tuesday, it’s an occasion that can create mixed feelings for us “greenies”: yes, it’s great to have recognition of the importance of recycling in our daily lives, but the very existence of America Recycles Day reminds us that, in many cases, American’s don’t recycle… or, not nearly enough of us, anyway. We need to address that issue on the level of mindset as well as accessibility: many of us don’t think about our disposal of “waste” as we should, but many others don’t have access to convenient recycling services… and we’d like both to change.
I’d imagine both of those issues will receive plenty of attention today. I’d like to bring up another concept that doesn’t get discussed as much: recycling as a moral yardstick for one’s commitment to environmental protection and restoration. You know what I’m talking about: the mixture of disbelief and downright contempt many of us experience, and express, when we find out someone doesn’t separate recyclables out from their home waste stream. “You don’t recycle?!” We often “ask” this rhetorical question with a tone reserved for question like “You don’t vote?” or “You don’t wash your hands after using the bathroom?” Failure to recycle is a personal and social failing akin to passing gas at a cocktail party…
OK, maybe that’s a little strong, but I do think we tend to approach the act of recycling as a sign of virtue. I don’t know that this is always the best way to get more people not only separating out waste paper and aluminum cans from the “trash,” but also thinking about the impact of their consumption choices. As someone who’s been guilty of all the above-mentioned sins, I’d like to share my resolutions for this America Recycles Day (why wait until New Year?).
I resolve to remember that recycling is part of a hierarchy. You know what I mean: the three Rs. Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. It isn’t just a catchy phrase; it’s a prioritized list. It’s good to recycle those individual serving sized yogurt containers; it’s even better to buy products like yogurt in larger containers and create our own individual servings. And then reuse that container for leftover storage. Ultimately, we want to recycle less… because we’re not buying so much stuff that needs recycling in the first place. This often has the additional benefits of saving us some money… and that’s a great argument to use when trying to show someone else the benefits of going green.
I resolve to remember that convenient, affordable curbside pick-up isn’t available everywhere. Recycling still takes some effort in many places: not just separating materials, but storing them and transporting them to a drop-off point. In others, it can cost $30+/month for curbside pick-up, and in these tight economic times, many will see that expense as one that can be shorn from the family budget. Creating group “recycling pools” may be one effective way to get more people doing it: overall, let’s take time and expense into account, and see if we can find ways to minimize both. It’s easy to say “it doesn’t cost that much,” but why not give others the benefit of knowing their limitations in terms of time and treasure, and find ways to work within those limitations?
I resolve to believe that people can understand and appreciate the higher costs of poor resource management. If we really want to get people acting, let’s take the time to explain concepts such as “externalities” — in this case, the fact that we are paying the costs of our buy-and-dispose approach to consumption in other ways — higher local taxes, or decreased local services, because of increased landfill fees, or the need for more frequent trash pick-up, for instance. Let’s explain those costs in terms of the things they value: “the environment” may not do it for them, but schools, or parks, or police and fire services might. However we explain it, we should keep in mind that this kind of approach provides people with a sense of control: they can make choices that will make a difference for themselves and their communities. We can’t overstate the costs and impacts, of course, but let’s take the time to find out, and show others, the real expenses of business as usual.
I resolve to remember that guilt isn’t usually a great motivator. “You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” I still don’t know why you’d want to catch flies, but the old maxim has a lesson for us here — providing people with a sense of empowerment and reward will do more to change behavior than chastising them for not acting. We’ll get more people acting if we show them how such actions create benefits for them, their families, and their communities.
Right now, the “vinegar” method isn’t just the approach of many environmentalists; it’s the underpinning of the whole recycling industry. Generally, it costs us to provide a recycling company with the materials they’ll sell. Is there any other industry that relies on such a model for materials basic to its existence? I realize the costs involved in recovering recyclables doesn’t create a high profit margin, but programs like Recycle Bank are finding success with the idea that rewarding people for recycling is much more effective than using “don’t you care about the environment?!” as a way to get others to pony up. Let’s start thinking of ways to make recycling (and other green acts) more immediately rewarding.
I resolve to remember that all of my previous resolutions can, and should, be applied to other actions that benefit the environment. Recycling isn’t a magic bullet for environmental restoration… it’s one action among many. It’s part of a larger mindset that recognizes we should use natural resources with care and concern for future generations.
So, let’s use those blue bins… but lets also keep their use in context. We want higher recycling rates… along with lower levels of consumption, and a growing sense that abundance doesn’t equal more stuff. The we’ll really have something to celebrate!