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  • Last modified 13 days ago (April 10, 2019)

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Talking trash about recycling

Recycling. It’s one of modern times’ great religions, engrained into our souls from an early age with all the fervor of a chant of “Allahua Akbar!” at an Islamic madrassa.

Unfortunately, indoctrination often blinds us to actual messages. Read in the Bible what Jesus said about the Lord’s Prayer — how people should pray silently, without ritual, not just by reciting words in unison without appreciating their meaning.

Truth is, recycling is the environmental equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer or, perhaps, statins and Type 2 diabetes drugs — all good things but often used less nobly than intended.

Like the drugs, recycling lessens the consequences of a problem without really addressing the underlying cause. Rather than improve our diet by cutting down on saturated fat and sugars, we pop pills that control our cholesterol and blood sugar. Rather than stop using so many disposable items, we put the disposable things we use into little blue containers with circular arrows on them and say we’re doing our part.

The most significant myths surrounding recycling are that the nation is running out of landfill space and that modern landfills are ticking time bombs. Serious science — not just junk you see on woefully unregulated social media — has debunked both notions as definitively as it has debunked the idea that climate change is just a theory, that immunizations cause autism, or that table salt contains equal parts of sand, ground glass, and sodium chloride.

In reality, recycling is good business — for some, and only some, recyclable items. This has become the root of one of the problems with municipal recycling.

The most recyclable items in our trash are aluminum cans. But instead of putting cans into recycling boxes that municipal crews pick up, well-meaning citizens often haul them to collection points run by charities. It’s great that they support charities, which do good things with the revenue generated, but doing so starves municipal recycling of the most profitable items it can recycle.

Rather than embracing recycling with madrassa-like fervor and insisting on recycling everything that conceivably can be recycled, confining recycling to items that profitably can be recycled, and encouraging citizens not to divert those items elsewhere, might allow municipal recycling to make economic sense.

The notion that the public cannot understand or will not participate also is a myth. More than 30 years ago, Wisconsin adopted a law forbidding collection of trash that included recyclables. After a couple of weeks of acclimation, it worked. And it has continued to work for decades since, even before Marion County’s own green guru, Harry Bennett, moved to the state — which, by the way, Harry, can be just as archly conservative (McCarthyism ring any bells?) as Kansas.

Perhaps Wisconsin’s success can be attributable to strict enforcement of policies clearly explained by paid advertising that educated the public rather trying to get the same results out of unpaid notes on websites, in flyers, and on social media.

Bureaucratic rules often wrongly become regarded as inherent problems in a system. The notion that recycling litters the community because recyclables can’t be enclosed in trash bags is a classic example.

In Illinois, most residences have two carts with lids — one for trash, the other for recyclables. Blowing refuse and raccoon and possum raids on trash are thus avoided — and so is the environmentally unfriendly habit of forcing people to put trash into hard-to-degrade, non-recyclable plastic bags created out of vanishing fossil fuel reserves.

In many areas, collection is left to private enterprise. Getting the process out of governmental hands probably does more to save the environment than recycling itself.

Think about all the garbage trucks several municipalities in Marion County own. One or two trucks could service all the households in all the municipalities, but each city has to have its own. And manufacturing and operating a trash truck has a heck of a lot more negative impact on the environment than does burying a few plastic soft drink cups.

Rather than struggle to figure out what to do with two-member crews that don’t have enough to do picking up garbage, private enterprise serves multiple municipalities with one-member crews. Each roll-out cart is designed to be grappled by a mechanical arm that a single worker can operate while also driving the truck. Now we’re talking big savings.

Honestly, recycling is done mainly for show, to increase public consciousness. It’s kind of like reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. True patriots don’t need to do every day, and doing it every day won’t make anyone a true patriot.

Watch refuse crews at some big institution like a university collect items from various recycling containers. Interestingly, they often mix everything together with other, non-recyclable trash before hauling it away. Yes, crews at a transfer station still sort through it to find key items worthy of recycling, but they do so by sorting through all the trash, not just stuff collected from specially marked containers.

It’s disillusioning, perhaps, to see that those containers were essentially just for show. When we think about things with religious fervor, it becomes hard to separate truth from image. And it becomes harder still to learn the actual lessons — like how Marion County municipalities could recycle a whole fleet of separate garbage trucks into a more efficient, shared operation or how recycling applies not just to trash but also to public infrastructure, including historic buildings that can and should be restored.

Being a true environmentalist means more than scolding someone who fails to toss something into a blue receptacle. It means looking at a much bigger picture — the whole environment, not just the environment of a trash can. As long as we live in a disposable, bureaucratic society, we’ll never get recycling right.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified April 10, 2019

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