Here is the thing: I am from California, where recycling has been A Thing for quite a long time. I remember being trained to recycle throughout school, and it’s so engrained in me at this point that I reflexively do it wherever I am. If I’m carrying something recyclable and I don’t see a bin for it, I will hold it until I find one over tossing it in the trash. I’ll hold other people’s recycling too. It’s just force of habit, not least because I have to pay for garbage and I don’t pay for recycling.
Thanks to single-stream, all of this is even easier these days, because I basically dump anything I have that’s recyclable into one big container and drop it off at the recycling place whenever it gets full. Due to that and composting, I have minimal garbage each month, typically only having to go to the dump every six months or so with my can of trash. Whoopee.
I try to be aware of the fact that not everyone lives like I do, that the things I take for granted and accept as totally normal are in fact not always routine, but every now and then I slip up, as was the case when I was in New York City over the summer. It’s been a long time since I was in New York, and this was the first time in quite a while that I had spent serious time in the city, moving around on the ground, doing things with people, even commuting to an office (which was an interesting cultural experience in and of itself).
And the one thing I noticed basically immediately was the utter lack of recycling. There were garbage containers on the street, but none for recycling. When I carried my recycling to the office, there were just trash bins, and no recycling containers. When I patronised businesses, I saw the same thing. Delis and coffee houses that offered drinks in glass bottles and tin cans didn’t have a spot set up to recycle them. By the end of the day, I would be carrying around so much stuff I’d feel like a dump truck, except that when I got to the hotel, there was still no recycling.
So I asked my trusty coworker what the scoop was. Maybe I was just missing the recycling containers, although I searched high and low for the typical interlocking arrow symbol. Maybe New Yorkers were stealthy about their recycling, or kept their recyclables in sleek, elegant containers of modern design with no signifiers on them, kind of like their elite clubs. Perhaps I needed a special password or a secret knock.
‘Oh no,’ she explained.
According to her, while recycling was mandatory at home (and in fact the municipal waste company—which picks up all garbage for free(!!)—will fine you if it finds recyclables in your trash), it wasn’t required for businesses. Which just seems utterly absurd to me, both because recycling in general should just be everywhere, because, I mean, come on, and also because the vast majority of garbage and recycling is generated in business applications, not domestic ones.
Fortunately, the details of the recycling programme are a little bit more complicated, and some kinds of businesses actually are required to recycle some kinds of things, but I saw little to no compliance.
Sure, it’s good to get homes enrolled in recycling programmes, but where you really want to get customers recycling is on the business level. And businesses have to pay extra for full recycling service, so most of them just don’t get it, and I don’t blame them. Why add to your overhead like that? I’m sorry, New York, because I know you think you’re superior to everyone else, but this system is totally backwards. Not only do you not apply the same rigorous trash standards to businesses that you apply to homes, but you actually create an active disincentive to recycle for companies that might otherwise do it.
Basically, the only companies that are going to be into recycling are, uh, those that either genuinely want to run on green principles, or those that want to maintain a green rep. Wandering through New York City, I started thinking about all of the recyclable goods from the city being trucked out to landfills: hundreds of thousands of pounds of paper every day from Manhattan offices, who even knows how much glass, tin, and cardboard from restaurants, even the hefty amount of recyclable goods we generated at the office every day.
I saw only one recycling container anywhere in New York City, on Lexington Avenue, and it was for magazines only. A step in the right direction, surely, but not nearly enough. Why, in a city this large, with this many people, would you not have a comprehensive recycling programme? For one thing, you could cut down radically on waste, which would resolve some of the pressure on landfills: a known problem for New York. For another thing, you could actually generate revenue from recycling (by, uh, selling it to recycling firms, rather than charging companies that want to do the right thing), and most cities are all about finding new ways to make money.
You know, I wonder sometimes why making simple changes that would benefit the planet are so hard, and then I encounter issues like this. New York is filled with lots of smart, driven, passionate people, including people who are concerned about the environment and interested in developing better ways of living in harmony with the Earth and preserving it for future generations. The city might not be as woo-woo as we are on the Best Coast, but it’s not a total wash. If one of the world’s most cosmopolitan cities can’t get it together on recycling, how can we possibly expect to tackle the global crisis of waste?