WHAT HAPPENED TO RECYCLING?
Remember washing jars, crushing tins, soaking labels off containers, and flattening boxes in early days of recycling? The messy and meticulous work seemed like an acceptable trade-off for saving the environment. Who could have guessed at that time what was in store for recycling, and who knew how far the industry would veer from that simple, optimistic goal.
One inescapable truth about operating a recycling depot is the ever-increasing demand for more and more recycling. Who knew that in the last 5 years of operation, vehicle counts at the NRE would rise from 300 to 500 per day to anywhere between 1,000 and 1,500 vehicles coming through our gates each day, 7 days a week?
Every day at the NRE recycling depot, we filled mega-bags and pallets with toasters and lamps and computers and TV’s. Enough Styrofoam to cover Protection Island came through the depot each year. We sorted, baled, and shipped 7 separate streams of plastic. Baler breakdown grew into a 2-story mound of cardboard in a matter of days. Staff was overwhelmed and couldn’t keep up to the mountains of product.
Recyclers asked us why there is so much packaging these days and how to do something about it. We were all wondering how there could be so much…of everything. Why does one TV come wrapped in cardboard plus 3 different types of plastic, or is it foam? Why is that still shiny toaster in the mega-bag? Why is the washing machine in the scrap metal bin newer than the one I have at home? Out of the blue, tetra-paks were recyclable.
Were we doing a good thing by capturing all of these products? How could we promote Reduce while we are filling these mega-bags every day? We were choking on diesel fumes and baler dust as Recycling choked out Reduce and Reuse.
How did grass-roots community recycling turn Big-Box? Is this recycling or industry download of built-to-fail junk? A take-over? Is there an answer to the chicken and egg question of consumer demand or industry over-production?
Are consumers the victims or the perpetrators? When did “I bought a new one” become End of Life? When recyclers say, “it still works, but I wanted stainless,” what do we say? Donated out of fashion unsold clothing weighed 74,000 kg/year at the NRE.
Is that recycled tool broken? No. It needs new batteries, but the new battery costs more than a new tool that comes with a new battery. Why does the hose mount break in the same place disabling every power washer?
Does the #4 plastic symbol mean anything anymore? No. Well…yes…if it comes from your home, it’s ok. If it comes from a business, or if it’s not packaging, you can’t recycle it. Recyclers would look at us and say the obvious, “it’s the same plastic,” and we would say “I know. It’s this new program we have to follow. It’s based on purpose, like it’s a container. And, where it comes from…like did it come from a home or a business? It’s not based on the actual product anymore.” Recyclers would shake their heads and walk away. Some would be angry, “I’m not looking for a new hobby. I just want to recycle.”
Our once prized on-site recycling education program became stand and point.
Our NRE community of recyclers who used to know all the categories, all the right bins, and all the staff, had been taken out of the game. Benched. Even the most dedicated and educated recyclers could not become experts in the new systems.
Feeling sidelined, long-time supporters and followers were losing connection to the community of people doing the right thing. We watched our fellow environmentalists lose the pride once felt when they pulled every last bit of plastic, and paper, and Styrofoam, the printer cartridge, the paint can, the vegetable oil, and placed it in the correct bin.
We knew something was wrong. Recyclers knew something was wrong.
What had happened to the good feeling we used to get from recycling?
I remember this as a turning point in recycling depot history.