Durham, North Carolina has by all accounts, a very successful single-stream, curbside recycling program. But unlike similarly-sized and inclined Madison, Wisconsin, a new contract unfortunately won’t include recycling of plastic bags used for newspapers, carry-out, produce, bread wrappers or plastic film used to cover dry cleaning.
However, this really doesn’t explain why 190 volunteers working at just 14 sites along 18 miles of urban streams recently recovered nearly 12 tons of discarded trash, much of it recyclable. Similar efforts statewide collectively pulled 207 tons of trash from watersheds.
Plastic bags and film, as well as polystyrene such as Styrofoam, are highly visible, but only a tiny sliver of the litter or waste stream.
Even with curbside recycling up 40% in Durham annually over the same span, this week of stream clean-up still retrieved two tons more this year than was recovered during the same week in 2010 and a ton more than last year. And this is far from the only stream clean-up here during a year.
Unfortunately Durham neglects to forensically examine the trash and litter recovered from urban watersheds or other illegal dumping grounds, so the community is unable to trace it back to its origins to make the perpetrators as visible as their litter.
But using national studies of littering, it is tossed by just 4% of the population deliberately and by 17% when you count those who were too far from a receptacle and too lazy to find one.
It is likely that a greater proportion comes from the 3 out of 5 people who work in Durham but aren’t residents. Seeing themselves more as renters than owners, they may be more inclined to litter.
Durham itself is also a kind of renter, trucking its waste and recyclables to landfills and sites in other communities, including nearby Raleigh. This may, in part, explain the lack of urgency here by officials to incorporate plastic bags and polystyrene in its curbside collection.
Both are recyclable, bags into products such as composite decking and pallets and polystyrene into, well, more polystyrene for packaging and products such as picture frames.
In part this has led to an offshoot group to which I’ve been invited from the Environmental Affairs Board to pursue solutions to reduce use of these materials or advocate for greater recycling.
From what I’ve learned over the years, the problem is part technology - including cost and adoption - part inertia and part consumer behavior.
Many companies that recycle on contract with places such as Durham have not done the necessary upfitting to handle plastic bags and polystyrene, some due to cost, but many due to inertia because recycling is a difficult business and many people fail to grasp the need for continuing and never-ending innovation.
A bit of this is “chicken and egg” because only 11% of the population has access to curbside recycling that accepts plastic bags and film and only a little more than 3% of communities such as Madison accept it. This is also the problem with recycling polystyrene.
Inertia on the part of communities is big part of the problem. Even when recycling vendors implement new technology such as they have for pizza boxes now in Durham, officials are often reticent to inform the public that they can include them in curbside bins or equivocal when asked.
Managing and influencing public behavior isn’t easy but it best done with passion and zeal, attributes that often seem lacking today among many public servants.
Plastic bags can pollute single-stream curbside collections and gum up machinery. Even if hand-separated it takes a lot of bags and film to make up a bundle, the way retail stores and dry cleaning suppliers do from their collection bins.
One low-tech solution suggested by a company that contracts to pick up curbside recycling in Texas is to place the plastic bags and film in a clear but heavier gauge bag before placing them in curbside bins, like we do for shredded paper. It calls the solution “bag in a bag.”
Curbside officials often fail to pursue or press for solutions such as this because they over-rely on residents remembering to hand-carry these materials to stores that recycle plastic bags and film.
Of course, if this was a truly a scalable solution, we wouldn’t have curbside collection in the first place.
The story is similar for recycling polystyrene such as Styrofoam, a brand name owned by Dow. Many community’s now accept this material in curbside recycling.
Far more rely only on businesses that have begun to compress their shipping materials and then use the delivery trucks to “back-haul” the material where it can be recycled.
Others want residents to truck polystyrene to small packaging and shipping outlets that recycle this material, as a friend of mine’s business will do with “foam peanuts” which he reuses in Durham to ship instruments for medical diagnosis. Again, this won’t reach scale until more communities accept post-consumer polystyrene as curbside recycling.
This brings us to consumer behavior. Banning use by consumers has produced spotty results, actually resulting in increased use in some of the 80+ communities where items such as plastic bags have been banned. Creating an island where they are prohibited will not inhibit entry behavior by commuters.
However, no one can argue with comprehensive banning of various items from landfills which spurred communities to aggressively embrace curbside recycling beginning two decades ago.
Unfortunately, many such as Durham have failed to see the potential of expanding on this success by including more items, other than by enlarging carts to facilitation collection of items they do. Most have internal advocates to increase recycling participation but few have advocates pressing to find ways to expand the variety of items recycled, allowing inertia to set in.
Substitutes for plastic bags such as paper or re-useable bags have a far greater carbon footprint. As just one of many examples it takes seven trucks to ship the same number of papers bags that one truck can carry in plastic bags.
Some studies are also now linking bans on grocery store bags with increased incidence of foodborne illnesses. And EcoTalibans, as humorously depicted in this clip from the TV series Portlandia are well, just not consumer-viable.
That’s why it is crucial that the self-assembled group in Durham not over-focus on just plastic bags and polystyrene but keep their eye strategically on the overall objective of increasing both the content and volume of curbside pick up.
There are a lot of isolated success stories, some very nearby Durham but picking a few of these to replicate without a comprehensive, scaleable strategy will result only in exhaustive “activity traps” and fail to address the overarching objective.
Which brings us to the stickiest consumer behavior of all, littering.
Overall far too many communities, including Durham, dabble at well-meaning tactics for curbing litter but with no comprehensive, sustainable or measurable strategy.
Part of the solution to litter is education that not only begins at school but in schools. Given to site-based management, it is not enough for school districts to supply recycling bins and arrange pick up. Teachers and principals in each school must be educated to distribute the containers far beyond just the cafeteria.
Teaching that litter is wrong and socially and culturally unacceptable must be followed up by action by those responsible for common spaces such as roadsides, interchanges and around public facilities. We must demonstrate a zero tolerance for littering, not just preach about it.
Toleration of litter begets more litter and creates a self-perpetuating litter feed-back loop that overwhelms episodic clean-up efforts.
Finally, like most crimes against society, curbing littlering will require forensics and follow up even with just a warning-letter. The 4% of the public generating the majority of litter and foisting its effects and the cost for clean up on the other 96% must be held accountable.
Right now they think they are invisible if they think at all and immune from scrutiny or reputational risk.
Some human behaviors only change when more light illuminates perpetrators.
North Carolina got the attention of more than 10,000 litters last year through “warning letters” sent to registered vehicle owners after litter was reported through the Swat-A-Litterbug program. Another 3,163 drivers received enforcement citations for littering including 1,663 who were convicted.
We’ll need to increase that number times 18 times to reach every potential litterer among the 6 million resident drivers in North Carolina before we reach the full 4%.
But then, of course, we’ll also need to shed more light on litter-prone tourism parties drivers in 480,000 (or 4%) of the vehicles crisscrossing the state on overnight visits each year.
Through “warning letters” and citations, the North Carolina Department of Transportation may have the names and addresses of enough litters by now to be able to conduct a follow-up forensic public opinion poll to learn more about the residents and visitors most likely to litter.
Interestingly, of the nearly 3,600 tons of roadside litter collected along state roads in 2012 alone, as well as thousands of tons pulled from watersheds and parks, a substantial amount was still recyclable.
The 4% who litter, or the similar percentage who claim they “never” recycle or any who backlash purely for ideological reasons are far too expensive to ignore.