Recycling, Money, Sustainability, and Me

This past weekend, the NBC News segment “Growing Number of Cities Suspending Recycling Programs Over Rising Costs” showed the example of Casa Grande, Arizona as indicative of a downward trend prevalent among American cities. I watched this story with interest, since we’ve experienced the rise and fall and rise again of recycling programs in Montgomery, too.

The segment described how cities are struggling to finance and maintain curbside recycling programs, especially now that China has stopped buying these materials. It also hints at how and why the end of such programs is problematic. Amid concerns about climate change, there is a real need to recycle, now more than ever.

If you watch the whole two-and-a-half minute segment, you’ll hear from local teacher Rick Wilson, who has a “one-man volunteer” recycling program at his school. For the brief moment that he speaks, Wilson admits that he is only making a small difference, but he’s doing something. I was glad that the reporter included Wilson, because his approach, to me, is the among the best options: pitching in and taking action personally, rather than making excuses while we wait on government services. For city governments to collect recyclable materials, it is necessary to pay for employees’ salaries and benefits and for trucks’ gasoline and insurance. However, if ordinary citizens do the collection work ourselves, then the processing of it becomes more affordable for the city.

In addition to my school garden, I’ve got a recycling program like Rick Wilson’s at our school, which I started after coming home from the National Sustainability Teacher Academy last summer. Three or four student volunteers collect the materials every Friday afternoon from receptacles in a dozen classrooms around campus. I then load the bags of mostly plastic drink bottles into my truck and drive them to the green dumpsters adjacent to our recycling facility. It takes the students fifteen minutes to collect it all, it takes me about thirty minutes to haul it, and the costs are miniscule.

I agree that municipal support for sustainability is a good idea, but we’ve got to recognize when personal and community effort offer a better solution than a government program. The first and best thing we can do is to buy and consume fewer single-serving bottled drinks, given how affordable and durable most refillable water bottles are now. Another thing we can do is to make the effort to sort our own recycling and organize a few neighbors and friends to share the duty of carrying them to be processed. Honestly, if more people did just those two things and nothing else, we would see a big difference.


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