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In our household, during the kid-raising years, a system evolved regarding things no longer wanted. Rejects of out-grown clothes and toys would appear neatly stacked outside each kid's doorway, and it usually fell to me, the mom, to take over further distribution from there. But, getting paper, cans and bottles into our family's separate recycling bins was always the responsibility of the person who had used the item. This was not rocket science, although sometimes there was a jam-up of objects on the kitchen counter, apparently due to some kind of wrist weakness involving opening the door to the recycling location in the garage. Less physically and mentally taxing was the composting of our organic kitchen and yard waste, which is easy if you have a yard, of course.

All of this family management was based on the notion of personal responsibility. If we bought or created something, it was ours, thus the act of its removal was also ours. However, the bigger issue for me, and I hoped also for my family, was recognition of our consumption of resources and the energy it had taken to create products. Declining to use plastic shopping bags and products smothered in gobs of packaging helped reduce some waste. Reusing things like glass jars or plastic butter tubs saved us from buying storage containers. And, recycling every possible thing helped us dig in our heels to avoid landfilling as much as we individually could.

In the decades our family has followed this pattern of waste prevention, things have changed on the local scene. We have seen recycling go from civic projects where volunteers collected and sold recyclables to having city-run drop-offs, curbside pick-up, processing and marketing programs. In Fayetteville, citizens have fought off incineration, which deposits toxic gases and particulate pollution in air and water, and destroys recyclable resources. Unfortunately citizens have tried to not think about or deal with the many horrors and hazards of landfilling, so trash mountains have continued to grow due to numerous irresponsible political, commercial, industrial and psychological reasons.

Because no controls have ever been put on industries to design products and packaging that are recyclable, biodegradable or returnable for reuse, more and more layers of waste have been piled on land or washed into watersheds and oceans. Much of this waste is oil- or gas-based plastics that pollute forever. Mandatory recycling for residents, businesses and industries has never been tried here, probably because such a notion is believed to be political suicide (which I doubt). And, waste education efforts consist of sporadic events or informational brochures instead of ongoing policies and codes integrated into all aspects of civic, commercial and residential life in our communities.

When citizens' direct involvement in recycling was replaced by municipal departments and private companies, the moral focus for saving valuable resources was lost to the practical mechanics of processing tons of materials. It's my guess that recycling participation has stagnated because people figure their waste is no longer their problem as long as it is picked up. Nothing could be further from the truth. As long as trash is out of sight, it's out of mind, but it is not out of the environment.

Fayetteville has recently completed a pilot project testing "single-stream" recycling in a few neighborhoods, and the findings and recommendations will be in a future report for the City Council to mull over. There's a notion that by allowing people to put all recyclables into a single container (a single stream), reduced confusion about what's recyclable (especially plastics) and one-container convenience will translate into a lot more items being diverted from the landfill. But many of us think that is faulty logic, since contamination from mixing recyclables renders them too dirty for higher-paying markets, making what could have been a resource into garbage.

Contamination is happening across the country in these single-steam programs and re-manufacturers are screaming, "Foul!" Reconfiguring how recyclables are collected to keep them as clean and highly marketable as possible is wise. Trashing them is not. By requiring consumers to not just " Recycle Something," as Fayetteville's wistful slogan says, but to "Recycle Everything Possible," our communities could dig themselves out of the rising dump.

Perhaps new changes could escalate recycling, but my gut and several decades of experience tell me that until people take ownership and personal responsibility for their waste stream, the increase in participation and marketable recyclables will be less than ideal.

Commentary on 06/28/2016

Print Headline: Things we own

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