Should we still require recycling?

I walk regularly and I pick up trash when I do so.
I always inspect the neighbors' trash cans and yes, I do dumpster dive on occasion.

I put on -- in the past -- programs on waste management, recycling, and the like.

I even had the signal pleasure of touring Waste Management of PA's central, state-of-the-art single-stream recycling facility. It was amazing and if there is a single-stream recycling facility anywhere within driving distance, you should absolutely arrange for a tour. Most of these places do tours for school and civic groups.

All of this is to lead into my topic. I know plenty about recycling. My trash hauler (WM of PA) tells anyone who asks, as often as they can, what can be recycled. It's complicated because many plastics such as Styrofoam that have the recycle triangle/arrow symbol on them can't be handled. Glass, while collected in my area, isn't recycled because it's cheaper to make new glass from sand and then the glass factory doesn't have to sort the identical shards of clear glass apart before melting.

Window pane glass, drinking tumblers, crystal, and glass jars are all clear but they are NOT THE SAME.

The Chinese, who were acting as America's garbage dump, are now refusing recyclables if they are above a certain contamination point.

I see what my neighbors through out all over Hershey. This is an educated area where plenty of citizens use reusable cloth bags. They tout their green credentials.

Yet overall, the majority of trash cans and recycle bins I see are not separated. Recycle bins are crammed with trash bags stuffed with God knows what. Recycling that isn't sorted by the homeowner has to be sorted at the facility. Trash bags have to be ripped open (they clog the automated sorting equipment), propane tanks have to be removed, all kinds of stuff has to be hand-picked out by employees in hazmat suits.

I'm really wondering if we didn't get better recycling when serious people sorted their glass and cans, boy scouts did paper drives, and everyone else just tossed their trash. Yeah, I know it goes to the landfill but so does plenty of what is supposedly being recycled.

We might get better compliance when the Chinese force our hand. Then, the only accepted recycling will be newspaper, cardboard, metal, aluminum, and soda bottles. Based on my direct observations over the last few decades, most people (not all!) can handle that level of sorting.

They cannot, sadly, do more.

Never forget that by definition, half the population is below the medium for intelligence.
Even more people have no reason to care. High costs will make them care but as soon as the higher costs go away, so does compliance.
Moreover, I don't believe most citizens see a direct, one-to-one benefit from recycling. It's just one more task in an already too-busy life. If we can't get people to see that combining their car trips will save time and gas $$ how can we expect people to properly sort garbage?

I know this is depressing but reality often is.

Any thoughts?

Sweet Tatorman's picture

I do not wish to denigrate those who are rightly concerned about the amount of waste material generated by advanced economies and wish to do their part to mitigate the problem. Some, if not most, of the recycling of material at the individual level I suspect has little positive impact and in cases actually results in negative impact. Take for example your town where glass is collected but landfilled anyway. Each bottle compulsively rinsed before sorting by the well meaning citizen uses water that consumed resources to acquire, purify to potable standards, and pumped to their house. What I believe can have much greater net benefit is further adoption of the ethic of simply use less. Unfortunately, this is seen by many as simply Unamerican. Just ahead of the posting of your new thread CB started one about a new 29860 square foot house in her area. If the owners of that new house had simply opted for building say 20000 square feet that would have a lifetime reduction of environment impact greater than if everyone of their next seven generations of progeny diligently recycled everything possible.
I really do not know what is the best course of action in the area of governmental mandate but I suspect there may be gains to be made in packaging. The Europeans are well ahead of the Americans in this area. On an individual level, living the example you would like to see in others is a good start.
Cartoon courtesy of The New Yorker magazine.

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I have made an effort to educate myself about what is really recycled and what isn't. The only two plastics that get recycled in my area are #1 and #2. That leaves a lot of plastic that ends up in the landfill in spite of being put in the recycle can. As far as I know, you can't recycle any kind of film plastic. That means any kind of plastic bag or sheet plastic. I did run across a Japanese invention that will turn certain plastics back into their source of oil, but it takes a lot of energy to cook them back down and it only works for certain kinds of plastics.

Glass is a tricky one too. Depending on how the glass was made to begin with it will have a different melting temp and they don't necessarily blend well together. I have noticed on some of the Coke delivery trucks that they are saying that the glass Coke bottles are returnable and presumably being reused. I don't see why most glass bottles can't be returned and reused. I prefer things in glass, but sometimes things that are somewhat hazardous, like bleach and there were less accidents with it in a plastic bottle. But I suppose that some kind of padding could be put around such bottles, like the straw padding around wine carboys. I have seen such padding around glass water containers.

Paper can recycle, but you have to be careful to look for composite materials. Paper that is bonded to some kind of plastic. Those Kevlar shipping bags and bubble wrap padded bags. Cardboard that has been made water resistant and the new forms of take home food containers.

All in all, Sweet Tatorman is right, our only really effective option seems to be to use less. I am working on that one at present.