Monday, August 08, 2011

Until trash magically disappears in Rochester, NY


Let’s face it: A lot of folks won’t recycle unless it’s almost effortless. Sure, there are the dedicated folks who read all the instructions by the county and their communities and make sure all the right stuff gets to the right places. But you only have to look at the size of our landfills and the trash along our streets to see that far too many still march their old TV’s, computers, and you-name-it to the curb whenever the idea occurs to them. We are a long way from Zero Waste—which is the Holly Grail of sustainability. Zero waste is a philosophy that encourages the redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused. Any trash sent to landfills is minimal.

Landfills, for all their salient convenience (throw all your stuff in a great big hole and forget about it), are not good for our environment. Meaning, landfills do not a sustainable environment make. What little methane gas we burn for energy from rotting biomass (about 20% if we are lucky and the rest goes into our atmosphere as a very potent greenhouse gas) is nothing compared to the mountains of stuff that cannot be reused as resources, but must be dug anew from our land. A landfill is simply a black hole for those who think that stuff disappears when we are done with it. Trust me, it doesn’t. In fact what we need is not a delusional disappearing act, we need a waste stream that is green all the way down—meaning some kind of universal waste stewardship standard to make sure waste gets treated properly and never contaminates.

Our county and state government have recently ramped up their efforts to get junk out of landfills and recycled properly with the passage of the expanded plastics measure, the new ECOPark (that will be a one-stop-shop for the disposal of everything not accepted by refuse haulers), and the The Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act - NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation. But even when offered a myriad of places to recycle--hazardous waste and pharmaceutical drop-offs, recycling business, non-profit groups that take hard to recycle stuff for you, non-profit donations centers where you can have your stuff reused, and special recycling events--many just want their items gone—not a lecture or a long search. They want instant trash be-gone gratification.

Also, many folks don’t like the government telling them what to do, like fining them if they don’t recycle properly. For them the market system becomes the Holy Grail so that all your trash pays you back. As you guessed it, there are folks working on that:

Taking It Back “Material makers will have to adapt to help consumer goods firms fulfill product stewardship goals | “Begin with the end in mind.” It’s one of the seven habits of highly effective people, according to leadership guru Steven R. Covey. Highly effective consumer products companies are leaders at prototyping, consumer research, and creating inviting retail environments because, for them, a happy customer is the ideal end state. But companies are starting to recognize that their products have a life after the customer, and that life often isn’t pretty. A cell phone, a car tire, or a plastic bottle will, more often than not, be thrown away after use. But “away” is not a mythical nonplace; it usually means either a landfill or trash incinerator. All three objects are made with materials that can be recycled, and increasingly they are being recycled. In the U.S., 34% of municipal solid waste was recycled in 2009, versus 10% in 1980, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. For the most part, however, the products consumers use every day were not designed with any end-of-life destination in mind.” (Aug 1, 2011) Chemical and Engineering News

But it’s not going to be easy. How would the market create a waste system that doesn’t cheat, that doesn’t allow toxins and other contaminants to be shipped away to be contaminated in other areas, and one that insures that everyone recycles? Governments are the only folks who can compel those who don’t want to recycle to do so. And, of course, there will be those (as there always are) who say their freedom to trash the planet is secured in the US Constitution. (Even if it is, we’ll be knee-deep in trash in no time at all if that loony notion prevails.)

It’s not hopeless: There are ways to insure that your neighborhood doesn’t turn into one big trash heap. Contact Monroe County and report those who aren’t following the law: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Recycling Laws and Regulations. In the City of Rochester, report those folks who march their trash days ahead of the pick-up day and refuse to put their stuff in the proper containers so it blows all over the place. Get your neighborhood association to hire folks to pick up trash a few hours a week. Or, go to the Rochester Sierra Club Zero Waste site and gets some ideas on how and where to recycle in our area. You might even put in a request to their Facebook page for that hard-to-recycle item of yours. There is no limit to the amount of places where you can recycle, once you take responsibility for the health of your planet that you plan to leave to your kids.

Until the day comes when trash magically disappears it will be a threat to our public health, the value of our properties, and continue to contaminate our environment. There are an incredible amount of folks who do care about the proper disposal of trash and when their numbers predominate in a community, you have a clean community. Until then, your government will have to ramp up enforcement and compliance as is happening around the world because living in trash is just not sustainable.

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