Monday, July 30, 2012

Overcoming Recycling Cynicism

Some of the most cynical statements I hear about recycling whenever I bring up obvious gaps seem to be quips from those tasked with getting people to recycle.

It can’t be an easy job, after all, especially if you consider that we still can’t get 23% of men, many dressed in impeccable business attire (up to a third of those attending expensive sports events,) to wash their hands after using public restrooms, or 61% of Americans to do so after coughing or sneezing.  So how do we get people to sort recyclables from trash?Library Containers

The 2012 National Geographic Greendex Survey reveals that 47% of Americans say they always recycle vs. 22% who often recycle.

That is 9 percentage points more than the worldwide average but far less than the 64% of Canadians who always recycle and 19% who often recycle.

Applying the differential in the survey of those who believe they are green vs. their perceptions of others, the percentage of Americans who always recycle may be closer to 32% compared to Canadians at 37% so maybe some cynicism among those tasked with increasing participation is justified.

Here are more than a half dozen suggestions that can possibly help fuel greater recycling:

  • Anyone selected to champion recycling should already have ample passion and determination along with a strong sense of mission along with a strong growth-orientation.  It will be essential to success and experts find it is almost impossible to instill these attributes in people once they are adults.


That is most likely the same proportion who can’t be troubled to be diligent about placing items in the right container or give a damn that we’re rapidly running out of landfill.



  • A clear answer has never been forthcoming but no one seems to know how many Durham schools, public, private and charter have separate receptacles for trash and recycling similar to those shown at the library.  How can this value be embedded in adults if it isn’t abundantly clear and available to young people?


  • Stop being timid about enforcement.  A Republican official and friend of mine believes the fixation his party has with regulations is paradoxically driven by the fact that so few are energetically enforced which leads to over tightening.



  • Promote stores that have recycling bins, especially those that collect items not yet eligible for curbside, e.g. small batteries at the American Tobacco Complex and plastic bags at Regency Cleaners and Target.

I’ve become an avid recycler and part of the motivation has been a game I’ve played for years to see how small I can get my trash footprint each week compared to the amount in my recycling cart which is picked up every other week.  Now it has become a reflex.

The same could be done for a community by regularly reporting a simple scorecard showing the proportions of trash and recyclables on a per capita basis compared to past performance and goals.  The EPA has even developed a calculator that could be used to compute the energy savings.

For example, few residents in Durham, NC, where I live, seem aware that the per capita trash disposed has declined 14% over the past 10 years, far more than the state average and far better than the 45% increase in the average of averages for other urban counties.

Still we can learn from and be challenged by neighbors who are doing better including some in the Durham metro such as the record-setting Orange County.

I am sure there is a similar 10 year benchmark for recyclable recovery but I can’t put my hands on it.  Last year, Durham ranked just 28th out of 100 counties, up from 33rd the year prior at 121.12 lbs. and far short of the 300+ goal assigned by the state.

Boiling these out into monthly numbers and giving the entire community simple reports of how much we are transferring from trash to recycling seems to be an idea with merit.

Recycling is important but it can be fun and rewarding.  Analysis shows that a 75% diversion of trash and debris, such as that created by construction, by 2030 from municipal landfills, would create 2.3 million jobs, reduce greenhouse gas emissions equal to shutting down about 72 coal power plants and significantly improve our ecosystem.

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