"Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without" was a common saying during the Great Depression. Future wage-earners, entrepreneurs, consumers, and planetary caretakers learned habits of reuse and conservation from those who endured the Depression.
Unfortunately, nowadays we're green-washed into thinking that our over-consumptive lifestyle is sustainable as long as we recycle. We've allowed ourselves to be hoodwinked by those entities that are financially dependent on our continual generation of waste, like garbage-haulers and manufacturers of disposable products. While certain disposables are necessary for our health and safety, many simply feed our addiction to convenience. Words like "diversion" sooth our guilt as we purchase stuff we don't really want or need and use for short periods of time. We placate ourselves by thinking the items will be "diverted" to a recycling, compost, or incinerator (now called waste-to-energy, or WTE) facility.
We fail to acknowledge that we don't have to "divert" waste we don't create, and that diversion in the sense of recycling requires excessive energy and money. For example, a petroleum-based object such as a water bottle has to be transported to a facility where it is separated from other recyclables, then baled and shipped who knows how far to another facility where it is un-baled, chipped, then washed. Next it's shipped to still another facility where it is down-cycled into a fleecy jacket that when washed will send microscopic specks of plastic into our waterways, disrupting the endocrine systems of marine and human species. What happened to glass bottles and the rewash facilities in our local communities that employed local people?
Recycling, the supposed solution to all our waste problems, has been bastardized as WTE companies, manufacturers of disposable products, and garbage-haulers hijacked the environmental movement of the 1970s and obliterated the mantra, "Live simply so that others can simply live." The recycling hierarchy got flipped so in the minds of consumers words like reduction and reuse are buried beneath recycling. Recycling was supposed to be our last alternative after reduction and reuse.
With the advent of single-stream recycling, our original simple, inexpensive, community-oriented, volunteer-driven, grass-roots recycling programs have devolved into contaminated messes. Single-stream is the collection method whereby all recyclables are dumped together in a single-compartment truck, just as garbage is dumped.
Dumping unlike recyclables together into a single-compartment truck results in glass breakage. Compaction of spilled food, liquids, and tiny pieces of wayward debris, metal, glass and plastic creates an inseparable mess. Even when done correctly, recycling is a filthy, nasty, gross business. That's why you must be allowed to enter a recycling plant at any time, unannounced, to see what is actually coming out of the trucks.
Fort Smith isn't the only community trashing its recycling; it just got caught, as did 14 communities north of Dallas. Atlanta, Chattanooga, Santa Fe, and Providence, R.I., landfilling their glass. In Huntsville, Ala., and Portsmouth, Va., citizens discovered their recycling was being incinerated. Portland, Ore., and communities in Washington state, Iowa, Massachusetts, and Arizona have acknowledged landfilling recyclables.
Giving total control of your recyclable resources to any industry that is financially dependent on your continual generation of waste is a conflict of interest. Maintain control of your recyclables by writing contracts that require safe, clean collection and handling practices, as well as minimal technology/energy usage for separation and preparation for baling. Regarding billing, insist that recycling and garbage are two separate line items, or else suing for fraud will be next to impossible.
While I'm proud that Arkansas is the first state to pass a recycling transparency resolution (HR1043 of 2013), resolutions carry no legal weight. We need local and state laws making the entire recycling process transparent, from curbside collection to dumping trucks, to baling, to sales of bales.
Is your community known for providing re-manufacturers with the cleanest loads possible so your recyclables are actually made into new products? Improve your quality and lower your recycling collection costs by complementing your curbside programs with simple, park-like dropoff centers that are designed, built, and maintained by students, retirees, civic organizations, church groups, government employees, and community service workers. Dropoff-center usage will increase revenue from sale of recyclables since most of the excess expenses associated with single-stream (collection, sorting, contamination, damaged equipment, down time, scarce markets) are eliminated.
A fenced, manned, well-organized, immaculately clean, artistic, educational and family-friendly dropoff will be a source of community pride and reduce contamination to low single digits. Continuing education for all ages, and citizen/government partnerships, are the keys to success. Together we can shift the paradigm from waste diversion to waste aversion.
Louise "Louie" Mann is a retired waste-reduction educator who lives in Northwest Arkansas. A former public school teacher, she ran an educational, park-like, family-friendly dropoff center back in the last century.
Editorial on 03/01/2019