(Toledo, OH) I have long been an advocate of recycling efforts, which no doubt reflects the fact that I grew up after the environmental movement became influential in American politics and society. I dutifully recycle containers, cardboard, and paper, marking my calendar to keep track of the bi-weekly pass of the Toledo recycling truck. I mulch my grass clippings, recycle used batteries, and even mix in food scraps to my compost when I remember, or when our wily canines have failed in their panhandling efforts.
Since we began curbside recycling in Toledo, I have noticed that our weekly trash production is about half of its former levels. It is rare that we fill up all three of our 32-gallon containers, and many weeks see our large family setting only two cans at the street.
I say this not to applaud my own insignificant contribution to a reduction in the 251 million tons of solid waste dumped in municipal landfills each year, but rather to examine the reluctance of many Americans to recycle. In my neighborhood this morning, less than 25 percent of my neighbors bothered to put out recycling containers this week, and most of these houses provided ample evidence that they put forth no effort to recycle.
This is especially surprising in Toledo, where non-recyclers pay a higher rate for trash pickup. A non-recycling homeowner pays an extra $30 per year as compared with a resident who signs up for the city program, which provides an additional incentive beyond lofty ideals about reducing municipal solid waste (MSW), trash incineration, and groundwater and air pollution.
Left: Annual U.S. municipal solid waste production trends; click to enlarge
Toledoans, however, seem fairly typical in their anemic efforts to recycle. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the recycling rates of the major components of MSW demonstrate that there is a great deal of room for improvement:
Auto batteries: 99.0%Yet some combination of apathy and resistance to change continues to plague American consumers, as the per capita generation of waste moved from 2.7 pounds per person per day in 1960 to 4.6 pounds per person per day in 2006.
Steel Cans: 62.9%
Yard Trimmings: 62.0%
Paper and Paperboard: 51.6%
Aluminum Beer and Soft Drink Cans: 45.1%
Plastic Soft Drink Bottles: 30.9%
HDPE Milk and Water Bottles: 31.0%
Glass Containers: 25.3%
But heck: what do I know? I mean, people are busy and stuff, and recycling takes, like, time and stuff, right? Who wants to rinse out milk cartons and place newspapers in bins when they could be popping a Justin Timberlake CD in their stereo cabinet, or watching exciting installments of "Deal or No Deal?" Why keep a bunch of old inkjet cartridges, cell phones, and AA batteries laying around when you can just toss them in the garbage and forget about them?