Talking to a young co-worker the other day, I expected the teenage generation to have fully embraced recycling. I was wrong. Instead of supporting my pro-recycling stance, he came back ambivalent with a statistic that only 40 percent of goods that make it to the recycling center is actually reused. His point: why bother?
Forty percent is better than nothing, a dubious figure anyway. Granted, we in the U.S. don’t recycle nearly enough, judging by the public waste cans overflowing with paper, cardboard, aluminum, plastic and glass. It is beyond my comprehension how we ever got to the point individually and collectively of allowing wastefulness like full meals delivered through windows and disposed of in a heap of wrappers, plastic utensils and drink cups. This waste takes up a large percentage of landfills, I heard 20 percent, so we begin here, where you and I and all of us together can make a difference. We will save the Earth one person at a time by modifying everyday behaviors, and by our good examples (not berating people!), will teach others the less dramatic but still dramatically effective ways that all of us can contribute.
1. Use steel or hard plastic (less desirable) drink cups. The employee on the other side of the restaurant counter or window might be a little confused at first — say you agree with Dick Cheney that recycling is a personal virtue. Or say please fill this up instead of using a new container. Gatorade and similar thick bottles last forever and occupy my refrigerator full of water, juice and sometimes soda from two-liters, saving money and waste. Don’t freeze plastic bottles (releases compounds from the plastic). And make sure your container is clean and easy to handle. Those folks across the counter don’t make much for their efforts, and the last thing they want to handle is a sticky plastic bottle caked with small, deceased insects and grit off the bottom of your car. Soda is the highest profit item for fast food joints, and bottled water is hugely profitable, reason enough to drop the habit of both wasteful behaviors.
2. While on the subject of fast food, if you know you’re going to pull over and scarf a double cheeseburger from the drive-thru window, ask for your sandwich in a wrapper with no bag and one napkin. And tell them you don’t need a “spork” set with your apple pie. I don’t agree with Sheryl Crow about using only one piece of toilet paper – maybe she doesn’t realize not all of us crap rabbit droppings – but some waste is just…obviously wasteful. Requires a little forethought, but awareness is key to green living.
This gives me an opportunity to explain my brand of activism. Once, I watched a group of high school girls walk out of a Taco Bell and proceed to drop behind them a trail of waste – the bags the food came in, wrappers, sauce packets, napkins – topped off by flippantly tossing an empty drink cup that landed five feet from a trash can. You might be able to imagine how my ire flared. I really wanted to grab a passing cop, or take that cup and wing at their heads. Instead, I picked it up and peacefully placed it in the trash can, passed in front of girls and made brief eye contact to say, I took care of your mess this time. No harangues. No condemnation. Change comes slowly through persistence, awareness and long-term planning — and by setting a good example.
3. Plastic bags are the ultimate sin. They take centuries to break down, use petroleum products for their production and choke dolphins – really! Probably a few humans,m too. When the Russian went to the north pole and planted their flag they found a plastic bag. Apparently, Wal-mart had already staked its claim. I currently have around a thousand plastic bags waiting to go the recycler; I, too, am guilty of the sin of convenience and don’t always remember to bring bags from the stash to use at the grocery store. However, Lowe’s Foods has sweetened their recycling deal to earn 50 Green Points for every bag recycled. Bring in ten bags and you can earn a free stick of butter. A full load of groceries double-bagged could equal a gallon of milk. Have you seen the price of milk lately? Now I (and you) have motivation.
Keep a canvas shoulder bag in your car for after-work grocery runs, and as often as possible, leave the plastic bag behind unused at the store. The clerks are programmed to presume you’d like your apple wrapped in plastic and placed in a paper bag. Milk doesn’t need a bag, or twelve-packs or, as I once witnessed, cigarette packs. That’s right: clerk asked if the person in front of me wanted their purchase in a bag, and the customer actually said yes. Then, I kid you not, the person took out the cigarettes and tossed the wrappings and the bag in the street. I used to live in the outer-inner city, but I’ve seen these behaviors everywhere except Singapore. There, you carelessly toss a cigarette butt and they cane your ass. Here I’ve seen people dump their vehicle’s ashtray in a parking lot.
4. Use rechargeable batteries. Use rechargeable batteries. Use rechargeable batteries. Never throw away worn out Energizers (speaking of rabbits); keep a big jar under the sink and once in a while pack it away to a recycling center you can find by clicking this link.
I Googled ‘recycle batteries’ and turned up many, many resources branching way out into general recycling topics, but earth911.org is a comprehensive place to start.
5. Educate yourself. Educate yourself. Educate – you get the point. Use a Sunday afternoon to analyze your own lifestyle, home, work, school, neighborhood, and plan ways to reduce your environmental footprint, whether by biking instead of driving (you want to get in shape too?), or taking charge of recycling in your household and/or workplace by finding out what can and cannot be recycled (centers get swamped by unusable material). Simple, everyday decisions add up. The nature of the problem is the sheer scale. Dicky C. had a point about recycling being a personal virtue. It’s much more effective when applied on a large scale and he knows that; he found another way of telling the people who disagree with him to go f&#k themselves.
And one last note, to answer the age old question, take paper over plastic (and aluminum cans over plastic). Trees, at least in theory, can regrow.