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"If you find yourself in a hole, stop digging"

-- Will Rogers

We seem to be beasts of accumulation with insatiable appetites for goodies. Yet, after awhile goodies become stuff and, later, stuff becomes trash. Sadly, some things make the leap into trashhood almost immediately. Used packaging and containers can transform in a matter of seconds (lids), minutes (plastic foam containers), hours (plastic bottles), or days (jars).

There's a trash service in south Arkansas named "Get Rid of It." The phrase reflects an attitude. Fortunately, in contrast, some people feel a twinge of consumption guilt, or civic participation pride, and instead want to rid by recycling.

Fayetteville has long been fairly conscientious in its efforts to provide recycling as a volunteer option for residents, but it's not been easy. Handling massive quantities of anything takes savvy and when stuff is nasty, processing is greatly complicated. Added on top of that is the headache of selling recyclables as they ride the roller-coaster commodities markets, booming and busting, always dependent on supply and demand.

We, the residents of our award-winning city, have not participated much in the prevention of filling landfills, since we divert only about 9 percent of recyclables and 11 percent of compostables (yard waste), while throwing away some 29 percent (12,000 tons) of recyclables. So about three years ago, our City Council set a goal for getting 80 percent of our waste out of landfills and hired a consulting firm to tell us how. The consultants did as instructed and produced the "Solid Waste Reduction, Diversion, and Recycling Master Plan" (available at The assumption that making recycling easier and more convenient would increase participation was tested with a pilot project last spring where a selected area tried out single-stream recycling. Putting all recyclables in one container that is dumped into one truck and separated later at a sorting facility is essentially the "single-stream" method.

The catch-22 in this technique is that all that stuff crunched together gets it dirtier than our current separation method does, therefore an increased percentage is too contaminated to sell and goes to the landfill instead of being recycled. Without eyes on the bins' contents to reject non-recyclables, "get rid of it" items also wind up in the single-stream containers.

While single stream is being adopted in many cities across the country, things are not going well economically for many recycling centers that are having their dirty commodities rejected or devalued, and contaminated feedstock is harming the remanufacturers of recyclables. Nevertheless, several of our aldermen believe that the percentage loss to contamination will be made up by the increased amount collected overall. Diversion from the landfill is their primary goal, and while worthy, that narrow focus misses the main point.

Decades ago recycling was born from the awareness that we consume vast amounts of resources and energy just to produce waste. This recognition triggered a movement to stop waste creation at the industrial level and to instill at the commercial level the ethic of a cradle-to-grave responsibility for products. And, at the personal level, wasting the bounty of the planet was a moral issue. And, it still is.

To treat recycling as a problem solved by machinery and technology does absolutely nothing to plug the tsunami of trash designed to be sold, used and disposed of on man-made trash mountains so large that trucks appear dwarfed as they haul more resources up the heap. Also keep in mind, 8 million metric tons of plastic enter our oceans each year.

Single-stream collection won't slow waste production. Convenience won't either. And, neither will multimillion-dollar separation equipment. The flow of waste will not stop until we reject it and that message reverberates back up the production chain into the economies of the trash makers. Simply making it easier to recycle will never turn the tide of waste generation, which increases every year.

The Fayetteville City Council meets at 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 21, at the City Administration Building to vote to either pursue this master plan or parts of it or none of it. The data analysis of our local system, the evaluation of how to run things more efficiently, and the composting recommendations are very valuable. Missing are monetary, environmental, educational, and civic incentives to buck the addictive waste habit.

There is no "away" on a sphere, which is what we're riding around this universe on. Round and round we, and our stuff, go, and when we will stop, nobody knows.

Commentary on 02/14/2017

Print Headline: Wasting away

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