Occasionally I catch people browsing my recycling bins on the curb in search of aluminum cans. One such individual dressed in a business suit drove up to my recycling bins – and others on the block – to harvest cans. This seems like quite a lot of work, not to mention a colossal waste of fuel, for just a few pennies. How are these people breaking even?
They should join me on a daily walk around the neighborhood sometime. That’s where the real cache of recyclables can be found. Strewn along sidewalk, gutter and sometimes street, I easily find plastic soda bottles, aluminum cans, newspapers, the occasional milk jug, and if I’m really lucky, still-intact glass bottles. These I gingerly pick up like a trophy: An unbroken glass bottle means that I, or other neighbors, don’t have to swing by later with a broom and dustbin. You probably don’t litter. I fail to even imagine myself littering. But there are lots of people who do.
I do, however, have a very difficult time ignoring recyclables – actually trash of any sort – while out and about. My instinct, as my family is painfully aware, is to reach down, pick it up and stow it in a pocket, bag or looped around whatever digit is still available. I have stooped for dirty diapers and other unmentionables. I have picked up countless jagged shards of glass with bare hands when a broom was too far away and time was of the essence. Note to self: I really should use gloves. Fortunately, if I forget to bring along a garbage bag on a walk, it’s very likely that a bag (or large box, as recently happened) can be procured along the way to help tote the plastics and glass and cans and paper home.
Even after all the garbage I’ve scooped, carried and sorted, I’m still amazed that people litter. I’ve personally observed adults toss entire bags of fast food out of moving cars. I’ve seen kids walking down the street with a treat in hand, unwrapping as they walk and tossing the packaging to the ground in one fluid movement. I’ve witnessed teenagers taking great pleasure in smashing empty glass bottles in the street. And I’ve experienced the aftermath of large-scale dumping of unwanted personal belongings like mattresses and TVs in local parks and residential alleys.
We all experience something similar – or live alongside the result – on a daily basis. And it seems to me that our personal value systems may be a tad out of alignment. One of my neighbors, a retired teacher, frequently accompanies me on walks. His solution to help curb wanton littering is to assign monetary value to more recyclable packaging. I happen to agree. I also think that a deposit on certain items like plastic or glass bottles would greatly increase their recycling or reuse.
My grandmother kept few store-bought snacks in her house, but she did keep 7-Up on hand for the occasional upset stomach or special treat for a grandchild. For either use, an inch was all that was administered. Eventually those stately green glass bottles would empty and get returned to the corner market for reimbursement. Each one carried a 10-cent deposit. And you can bet that each one got returned.
Assigning value to trash is a difficult concept for some. It requires a great deal more big-picture thinking than the short-term gratification of consuming something and not being bothered with the waste produced by the product. What’s valuable beyond that? Well, how about diverting a recyclable item away from a landfill? Or reducing energy use? Or respecting shared space by properly disposing of trash? Or choosing to consume items that require less (or no) packaging whatsoever, like an apple.
The big picture is not that complicated: Understanding our personal impact on our environment, choosing wisely what we consume and taking responsibility for all of it — even the waste. This isn’t a new concept at all. In fact, it sounds a lot like plain, old common sense. Thanks, grandma, for the valuable early education.