Karen, a good friend and nearby neighbor, never recycled a day in her 39-year life. She has 3 sons: 3-year old twins and a 7-year old who has been friends with my 8-year old son since toddler-hood.
Karen answers the question that’s been nagging me for so long.
Recycling was a subject I’d broached with her on more than one occasion, but I had never directly asked her why she didn’t recycle. I would simply tell her she really should. Any time I visited her, I would hijack recyclable items from her home to mine, where they would land safely in my recycle bin.
She’s Catholic, so I thought the motivation-by-guilt approach—along with my friendly scolding–would eventually convert her into a recycler. That was not the case.
It hit me one day: If I delved into her non-recycler psyche, unearthed what was keeping her from making the leap, maybe I could break down those barriers to the recycler I knew had to be within her.
I met Karen at her home last Thursday morning during the early chaos of her morning routine outside with the twins, who were still in their pajamas. What I learned that morning was a bit of a surprise.
The obstacle? Time. “It’s one more phone call.” I followed her inside to the kitchen, where she scurried about her kitchen, preparing breakfast, occasionally glancing out the back windows on tip toes to make sure the twins—still outside–weren’t getting into any trouble. “It’s a focus issue.”
Time. As I’m writing this, two of my favorite time-related quotes come to mind:
“We must use time as a tool, not as a crutch.”
— John F. Kennedy (1917 – 1963)
“There is never enough time, unless you’re serving it.”
— Malcolm Forbes (1919 – 1990)
“It’s not that I don’t care,“ she continued before heading outside again, cereal bowls in hand. From the kitchen, I watched her settle her boys down to eat at their mini picnic table. Moments later, she was back in the kitchen wiping down the counters and doing other tasks. She threw something into the garbage can situated inside a pull-out drawer. “If it (a bin) was in my house, I guess I could… It’s just one more phone call. I’ve got a broken dishwasher, a broken fence.…” She glanced back outside. “I’ve got to watch the boys…
“I usually don’t throw much away. I donate toys and clothes unless they’re really nasty or worn out. I don’t buy juice boxes except for parties. I just have to make sense of the whole thing.”
She walked over to her cabinet and pulled out a canister of lemonade mix. “I make lemonade… we have the reusable water bottles.”
She showed me the box of single serving lemonade packets, explaining how these worked great with the reusable water bottles. She then admitted that the packets were probably wasteful.
I asked her how much trash they put out a week.
“One full container.” She informed me, noting the container’s 96-gallon capacity.
“So where do you think all this goes?” I asked.
“Probably ends up in the oceans… it’s not like I don’t know.”
According to earth911.com, of the estimated 251 million tons of consumer solid waste generated each year in the U.S., approximately 32.5 percent of the trash is recycled or composted, 12.5 percent is burned and the remaining 55 percent is buried in landfills.
What they don’t mention is that a vast amount of garbage has accumulated in The North Pacific Gyre, which is a slow moving clockwise spiral of currents that spawned the Great Pacific Garbage Patch —the largest “landfill” in the world. According to the United Nations Environment Program , every square mile of ocean hosts 46,000 pieces of floating plastic and of all the trash floating in the world’s oceans and in the Central Pacific, there are up to 6 pounds of marine litter to every pound of plankton.
“Would you be okay if your kids had to live next to a landfill when they’re older?” I asked.
“No. I hope that’s not a possibility… “
“Would you want a landfill in your backyard?” I asked. Of course, the answer was once again no.
“By not recycling, do you realize this is a possibility?”
“Okay,” I said, “so how do you think not recycling impacts your kids?”
“It could mean the end of the world. I think it could be horrible. It’s in the Bible. The super bugs (viruses)…” She wiped down the counters again, this time with Soft Scrub. “Don’t you panic?” she asked me.
The end of the world wasn’t what I had in mind. I was thinking about the fact that, even though landfills are lined to help protect the surrounding area, it’s probably about as fail-safe as a condom. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, because chemicals and gasses pass through the liner and its plastic tubes, they become brittle, swell and breakdown. As a result, not only is leakage possible, it’s almost inevitable.
With leakage comes the threat to those working or living around a landfill, including an increased risk of cancer and birth defects due to hazardous airborne releases from chemicals in both active and inactive landfills, according to a report by G. Fred Lee & Associates, an environmental consulting firm.
The decomposition process for waste in landfills spans decades, resulting in the need for more landfill locations.
Fortunately, Waste Management (the owner and operator of the largest network of landfills in the waste industry) is working on alternatives that will accelerate the rate of landfill waste decomposition to within years, instead of decades. This new technology also speeds up production of landfill gas, a renewable energy source.
“Do you think I’m the only one who doesn’t recycle?” Karen asked me.
“No,” I said. “But does that mean your impact is less? If there are others out there not recycling?”
“No.” She stopped her kitchen clean up and looked at me. “I know what you’re thinking… So you don’t recycle, why?”
Was it that obvious?
“I’m not defending myself,” she said. “As a stay at home mom, I like to do things the right way. But… I’m tired.”
She brought up the plastic toys again, a broken wheelbarrow and other items that she just didn’t know what to do with.
I told about earth911.com, “You can just enter the item you want to recycle, your zip code and VOILA: where to take it, who to call. It’s all right there.”
She gave me a look that said ‘too much information’.
I went for another angle. “So, do you just throw up your hands and say, the end of the world is in the Bible so…”
“No, I’m not like, ‘Oh God, take the reigns’. I’m a huge problem solver. I try to control things, but I’m not recycling and I need to.”
I asked her, as a problem solver, what she thought she could do about this.
“You’re not leaving here until I call Waste Management.”
For all these years, she was just one phone call away from getting a recycling bin delivered to her home. I thought interviewing Karen would uncover that she simply didn’t understand why recycling mattered or that she didn’t believe in it. Maybe she thought it was all a hoax. But it was only a perceived lack of time preventing her from changing her habits.
“Do you want to make the call now?” I asked.
Karen makes the call.
“Once you have the bin, what obstacles do you foresee?” I asked, realizing just having the recycle bin was not going to change her habits.
“I’ll need another garbage can,” she pointed to her garbage drawer. “I don’t want it to get gross. Flies… bugs. I get chipmunks in my garage, so that’s not a good place for it. Besides a coke can, wine bottles, alcohol bottles I’m not sure what else I’d throw in there. Can I recycle coffee grinds?”
“That would be for your compost pile,” I said as if she had one. “Sounds like you’re a bit intimidated by what you can and can’t recycle.” I told her even I sometimes question whether or where certain items can be recycled. “One step at a time. Let’s start with the basics. Paper, glass and plastic.”
“If I could have a sheet for my refrigerator…”
“I’ll email the recycling guidelines,” I said with reassurance.
(If your garbage/recycling service doesn’t have guidelines available online, you can likely get them from your county’s solid waste agency).
“Dave will tease me about this since we’ve never recycled… but then he’ll do it,” she said with a smile.
Karen breaks the news to the twins. A proud moment.
“How do you think we can get through to other non-recyclers?”
“If someone doesn’t get it, you can’t manage by fear or threats. It has to be fun. Has to be something in it for them. People are lazy. I can be lazy too… What’s more effective: ‘You have to do this!’ or ‘Here’s how you’ll benefit.’ Someone has to see their kids getting excited about it. For me, it’s all about time.“
Her point about recycling is valid. Many people know they should do certain things: eat right, don’t smoke, exercise. But telling someone they should without an immediate, tangible consequence or reward, is not motivating.
When I got home, I researched online to find out whether recycling incentives already exist. Here’s what I found, and I’m sure there’s a lot more out there.
- Tax incentives for individuals and corporations are available in over 20 states, including Arizona, Florida, Maryland and Wisconsin.
- Bottle bills (known as container deposit laws) are a proven sustainable method of capturing beverage bottles and cans for recycling. The refund value of the container (usually 5 or 10 cents) provides a monetary incentive to return the container for recyling. Eleven US states have bottle bills. Go to bottlebill.org to find out if your state participates.
- RecycleBank : Residents earn points (up to $400 in value annually) to use at participating reward partners like CVS, Home Depot, Whole Foods just to name a few. RecycleBank contracts with communities across the country and gives households credit for the weight of recyclables set out for curbside pickup. If you would like the RecycleBank program in your neighborhood, please contact email@example.com or call 1-888-727-2978.
- Reverse vending machines (RVM’s) take your stuff in exchange for cash! There are over 90,000 Reverse Vending Systems installed throughout the globe that actually identify, sort and compact your deposits.
So if you’re like Karen, or know someone who is, please share this information with them. As an eco.mom, my objective is to inspire awareness in other moms (and dads), connecting their impact on the earth to their children’s health and future. To tap into their nurturing instincts.
I’m pretty sure there’s not a mom out there who doesn’t want to leave behind for their children a safe world that is full of abundance—clean air, clean water, food and the beauty and wonders of nature. And a landfill-free backyard.
A high five for mommy.
Update: Karen’s family has the recycling bin–and they’ve been using it! I knew you could do it, Karen 🙂 I will be doing a follow-up interview before the end of summer. Stay tuned!