I like to think people will do the right thing if it’s simple enough to do, and if they’re aware they should be doing it. Especially if they’re minute actions — drops in the bucket. A great example is taking the rings from a six-pack and cutting them open so that you can save the life of a gentle, albeit horribly annoying seagull.
There have been times, though, that have made me question this assumption of benevolence.
Take this anecdote from my college days. I had a friend dating a football player so I found myself at a good number of sticky-floored “yeah, bruh” parties. After a relatively small-scale dorm party, I stuck around to clean up. The place was littered with red solo cups, of course. I had spare energy so I took them all to the sink. I washed them. Dried them. Stacked them anew.
Doing shit like this has, over the years, garnered the description *cRaZY* more times than I can count. When the bruh that lived in the place saw what I was doing, without pause or words, he looked me in the eyes and threw the stack in the trash.
And you wonder why I live in Europe now. But I digress…
I’ll just refer to my own experience then. Washing plastic cups is easy, and I have time to donate to the cause. Bringing the compost down the stairs is a bit more effort, but still, easy enough. But as soon as I have to look up an address, put my shoes on, and walk somewhere – damn. Keep in mind, I am incredibly physically mobile, not weighed down by kids, not exhausted by a minimum wage job, and I have the motivation and the intention to do the right thing.
But if you’re asking me to put on pants and shoes and a bra and bring my burnt-out lightbulb to 49th street on the third Saturday of the month, you are asking too much of me. I’m sorry – you are.
Who is failing here?
Is it me, in my laziness? Is it the hardware store, for not having a used lightbulb take-back program? Or is it city government, for failing to institute curbside pick-ups of household items and electronic equipment?
Let’s break it down, shall we?
Individuals have a pivotal role to play in making sure stuff is recycled properly. It is the individual who needs to do the lion’s share of proper sorting. It is the individual who will be bitched out by their Swiss neighbor about said sorting performance.
But while the individual can reuse their heart out, they can’t invent all the systems of recycling – crushing glass, melting down plastic, etc. Only collectives can achieve that. And as we’ve discussed, people are busy. We shouldn’t make recycling a *~*~* #1 Champion Samaritan *~*~* activity. Why not make it easier to do the right thing?
A lot of people have been talking about Corporate Social Responsibility, but I’m actually more interested in Corporate Environmental Responsibility. I would like to see more giant companies squeezed about their factories’ toxic byproducts and noxious emissions, not to mention where and how they’re sourcing their raw materials.
If they’re not willing to address those thorny issues quite yet, then I think an appropriate move is instituting take-back programs. I think of it as a kind of extrapolated warranty for when it breaks or goes out of style. The beloved monarch of cheap and disposable fashion, H&M, has intelligently taken the initiative to institute a global garment take-back program. As explained in their promotional video, they’re aiming to “close the loop on textiles.” I dig it.
Though this doesn’t always work as well as advertised. I remember one of those times I put on my shoes and took the subway to Flatbush ave where there was a Radioshack nearby. I walked in and proudly displayed my old computer cord, asking where I could drop it off. “Sorry, we don’t do that at this location,” was the response. I left, deflated.
That one experience put me off take-back programs in a big way. Consumers can’t be expected to bring every used item back to its place of origin, and companies shouldn’t be universally obligated to institute such programs.
I am strongly in favor of more extensive collection and recycling of waste by local governments. But how do they come up with the money to implement new programs? Well, in Sweden at least, you get a bill for water and waste. If capital is required for a new program, they’ll raise that bill by, say, 4 dollars.
For the curious, the recycling situation in Göteborg is thorough, but a bit arduous. There is household collection of glass, cardboard, paper, and foodwaste. If you want to recycle plastic bottles or cans you go to your grocery store and put them in a machine. You can get money back or press a button and it goes directly to a children’s charity. Lovely. But if you have, say, bottle caps, you have to go to a recycling station that is by law no more than 300 meters (0.2 miles) from your house. Like I said, it’s thorough, but if I want to do all of my recycling at once it feels as lengthy as laundry day.
I always hesitate to whine without offering solutions. So here it is, my dream waste management system:
WET : : collected every other day
Food waste – i.e. apple cores, dead plants, meat
Hygienic materials – diapers, Qtips, kitty litter
DRY : : once a week
Metals – cans, bottle caps
Plastics – bottles, packaging
Glass – beer bottles, broken glass
Cardboard & Paper – boxes, newspaper
Magazines – ink heavy things, receipts, tetrapak
BROKEN : : once a month (curbside pick-up)
(This would double as a street-by-street yard sale meets free-for-all, without a doubt.)
TOXIC : : once a month
There you have it. The details of this dream system are enormously complex of course, but hey, all of us pay good money for proper infrastructure. Why not make waste management a priority for a while?