The Daily Grind of Recycling

(Bloomberg View) -- The other day, I had an epiphany: If recycling were not required by law, I probably wouldn’t bother.

Okay, I’m a horrible person. But bear with me. In the wake of a blizzard, I was rolling the huge town-provided recycling bin to the curb for pickup. Downhill. Through the snow. On a steep driveway, imprecisely plowed. The walk was treacherous. I slipped once or twice.

And I began to wonder what I was doing.

Recycling is supposed to produce a warm we’re-in-this-together glow, as we join hands in solidarity to save the planet. Small children practice it in school as a sacred ritual of the secular religion. For years now, I’ve been able to smile inwardly at the knowledge that along with my neighbors, I’m doing the right thing.

Lately, however, recycling doesn’t feel like ritual. It’s just work. A lot of work. Sometimes a lot of hard work.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m old enough to have been excited about the original Earth Day in 1970. I remember smiling high schoolers circulating through the cafeteria with boxes and bags to collect what we would now call recyclables. I seem to recall doing a bit of circulating myself. Back then it was fun. One had the sense of doing good through the process of persuading others to do good. There was no coercion. There was not even much peer pressure. Just volunteers encouraging people to turn over what they were going to discard anyway.

Now it’s law; it’s been the law so long that today’s young people cannot remember when it wasn’t. And with each passing season, the rules seem to grow more complicated. My wife and I are constantly getting online warnings (and paper flyers) from our Connecticut town, usually couched in a tone somehow contriving to suggest that we residents aren’t quite up to the mark: Too many of you are including plastic bags. Or polystyrene. Too many of you are leaving your boxes unbroken. Or broken but with food clinging to the cardboard.

There’s so much to remember. If bottle caps are loose, keep them out of the recycling bin. (That’s what the state decrees, anyway; my town says caps are fine.) Don’t just rinse your aluminum cans but dry them too. (Water is bad.) As to those plastic bags that don’t go in the bin, don’t toss them in the trash either, but find a place that accepts them and drop them off there. Or better still -- we are told -- buy reusable bags. Sure, serious researchers consider them carriers of germs and infection.  But that’s okay. Just wash them regularly. (More work.) Oh, and take your wire coat hangers back to the dry cleaners.

People who imagine that these tasks take no investment of time must not be terribly busy. But if we don’t perform this important labor for free (so we are scolded sternly), someone else will have to be paid to do it. That will only raise costs. In other words, the only way to make recycling economically viable is to constantly pile more work atop those of us who only live here.

Not that recycling seems to be viable -- not beyond aluminum cans and plastics number 1 and 2. The rest of it can’t be processed at a profit. (Glass bottles and jars present a particular challenge.) As it turns out, much of the more valuable stuff can’t be processed at a profit either. Not unless the rest of us do a lot of the labor.

This perhaps is part of the problem. When we consumers are busy stacking the wire hangers and screwing the caps tightly onto the plastic bottles and examining cardboard for the tiniest traces of food, we’re not laboring in the first instance to improve the environment. We’re laboring so that private companies can make a profit -- companies hired by localities to handle recycling, and unable to figure out any way to stay in business except by conscripting householders. Imagine an auto repair shop announcing that in order to keep prices low, customers will henceforth be required to do some of the work on their cars. Business would dry up overnight.

I’m not against recycling. I understand that if the practice isn’t mandatory, a lot of people won’t bother. We also know that curbside pickup increases the likelihood of compliance, especially among those for whom a few cents deposit on a bottle constitutes a pittance. And in any case kitchen sorting is, we might say, a transitional technology. Robot sorters are improving rapidly, and may soon be able to pick the bad stuff out of the single recycling stream faster and more accurately than humans ever could.

In the meantime, what began nearly half a century back as a movement among happy optimists has become like too much else to which government turns its attention: heavy-handed, coercive, distant and thick with detailed rules. Recycling may be important, but it’s no longer romantic. It’s not fun. Nowadays, recycling isn’t solidarity. It’s ritualistic drudgery.

Still, fear not. I have every intention of playing my part. Until the arrival of the sorting robots, I’ll go on laboring in the kitchen and garage to keep recyclables separate and pristine. I’ll keep telling myself that I’m helping to save the planet, even when in actual fact I’m contributing my free labor to waste management companies that would be unprofitable if they had to pay for my services.

Is there compensation? Sure. But it’s no longer the warm glow that comes from the knowledge that I’m doing the right thing; it’s the single stream of reminders from my town that I’m doing the right thing all wrong.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen L. Carter is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is a professor of law at Yale University and was a clerk to U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. His novels include “The Emperor of Ocean Park” and “Back Channel,” and his nonfiction includes “Civility” and “Integrity.”

  1. I’m also old enough to remember the celebrations when McDonald’s, under pressure agreed in to quit using polystyrene containers for its sandwiches. This was no small deal. Those pressed foam boxes were practically a trademark. (To see the once-famous look, scroll down to the fourth image here True, back then you could still recycle the stuff. But fun fact environmentalists were quite candid in the view that recycling of polystyrene could not be made profitable

  2. And lead

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