The Coloradoan reported recently on the state of recycling in Fort Collins. This statement summed it up: “Given recent pushes to increase local recycling efforts, having that much paper piling up at the landfill was surprising.” My 12-year-old daughter reflected glumly that people don’t care. Well, I countered, apathy might explain some of the pileup, but surely it’s more complicated than that.
After all, there is no shortage of recycling efforts. Effectiveness is another thing. Near our house, a large bin sits alone in a parking lot for collecting office paper. Two miles east, a depot takes newspapers and aluminum cans, but no bottles or steel cans. My trash service takes cans, glass and #1 and #2 plastics, but no paper. My friend’s service takes corrugated cardboard but no cereal boxes or GCC (greasy corrugated cardboard, a.k.a. pizza boxes). One charity collects old phone books, but was that a temporary drive? I heard rumors that one place on North College now takes Styrofoam. Is a magazine considered office paper, junk mail or newspaper? What about magazine inserts in newspapers? What about TV Guide, a magazine printed on newsprint? Do egg cartons go with toilet paper tubes? I heard there’s a collection station on Mulberry just for toilet paper tubes. On Saturday, we’ll pile the kids in the van and go tubing.
Recycling must be made simple. Relying upon the entire population, one idiosyncratic person at a time, to figure out the complexity of what item goes where, under what conditions and at what time will never produce the results we need. But where is such a solution?
I found it in Minnesota. That’s right, your intrepid editorialist hit the road to scour America for the best recycling system. Okay, I admit, I had to be up north for another reason, but recycling was on my mind. The good news: I found the answer, in tiny St. Joseph, north of Minneapolis.
Here’s how they do it. Each homeowner is given two large plastic bins on wheels. These chest-high beasts are big enough for a dorm room party. One bin has a green lid. That’s for garbage. The other bin has a yellow lid. That’s for recyclables. Ah, but which recyclables? Everything. Glass, aluminum, steel, office paper, newspaper, junk mail, phone books, GCC, grease-free corrugated cardboard, plastic #1, #2, #Y, #Z and everything in between.
I sought out a resident of St. Joseph, a nurse and mom named Ellen, and asked, “How well does it work?” She replied, “Fantastic! We really don’t think about it. All I know is that our recyclables bin is always more full than our garbage bin.” Eureka! Now I admit, that’s no scientific survey, but these funny-talking dislocated Scandinavians have found the answer: the complexity of recycling cannot be left to the general population because… it’s too complicated! A focused team of people at the recycling facility does the sorting. The funky, topsy-turvy, overstressed, distracted general population does not do the sorting.
Granted, there are realities to deal with. Every community has distinct economics, demographics and politics to be considered. But I do believe the answer must be a strong coordinated community-wide plan to centralize recycling decision-making instead of leaving it up to 100,000 decision-makers.