Plastics have been both a blessing and a curse. Practically nonexistent a century ago, plastics are now part of a large number of man-made items, devices and packages. And while its durability and versatility are great assets, they are also notable liabilities. The very thing that makes plastic attractive for so many uses, its indestructibility under normal usage, is also the thing that makes it an environmental nightmare. Plastics simply do not go away.
At first glance, an outright ban of all plastics might seem like a good idea, but there are a dozen reasons why that is simply not feasible. Among them, plastics have some very good qualities and doing away with them would be akin to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Like many man-made objects and inventions, we would be better served, though, if we recognized and addressed the shortcomings of plastics.
Humbug! Only the most hardcore Scrooges would ever seriously utter those infamous words. Christmas, after all, is one of those things that should conjure up warm, happy feelings. Just as it is hard for most of us to imagine that anyone could be as miserable as Ebenezer Scrooge, it is similarly difficult to understand why anyone would be opposed to sensible environmental practices. Yet Scrooge's annoyance over Christmas shares some common threads with those cynical about environmental stewardship.
Like Scrooge's feelings about Christmas, some are bothered by the perceived inconvenience or difficulty of being green. Even if they get beyond those struggles, doubts can arise making us wonder if our individual actions really make a difference. These Environmental Ebenezers are not likely to be visited by the three spirits of the Environment, the way Scrooge was visited by the ghosts of Christmas, but the secret to their conversion is similar. The visits from Christmas Past, Present and Future helped Scrooge to connect dots he had never even seen before. We need to raise awareness about the environmental issues and then provide an easier way to address them, too.
Especially as the holiday season approaches, we might be able to push a few of our friends and family a little closer to the environmental ideal the same way the ghosts nudged Scrooge toward the spirit of Christmas. Just as Scrooge came to realize that it was not difficult to be charitable and pleasant, we can help others realize that being less wasteful is not inconvenient. It does not make the holiday any less enjoyable, and it may even make you feel good that you have done something beneficial for the planet and your community. Here are few ways:
The preparation will take a few minutes but will result in much less trash. This would make even Scrooge happy!
"What planet are you from?" I asked the surprised young lady as she approached me. A day after moving into her new dorm room at Penn State Altoona, she had already generated a bag of trash. A friend walked with her, toting a similar sack of stuff intending to toss it all into the dumpster next to Oak Hall. "We recycle here, you know?" I continued, gazing down at her full bag of both trash and recyclables. "Didn’t you get a recycling bin in your dorm room?" I ask rhetorically, knowing full well every dorm room gets one. "I thought we got two trash cans," the new freshman countered. After two days of struggling to get everyone on the same recycling page, my sarcastic fit worsened. "I guess you didn't notice the recycling arrow on the blue container."
She told me she was using it for recycling now, though the plastic bottle on top of the trash bag said otherwise. Turning a bit more conciliatory, I asked her to grab the bottles and put them in the recycling container. She cringed at the thought of digging the recyclables out of her trash bag. To those that think that the young lady simply didn't yet get the message, let's consider a few things. Besides getting a recycling container, every new student gets a recycling guide (full of pictures, in case they don't read everything). This is not likely the first time in her life that she has been exposed to recycling. Three quarters of people in this part of the country have curbside recycling programs. Most of the rest are within a few miles of a drop-off center.
A similar situation exists in area businesses and the community at large. After sending a friendly reminder to an area business earlier this summer, the owner called me back to say he would have recycled if only he had known. He was surprised to find out that recycling was required. "When was this law passed?" he inquired. "Twenty-four years ago," I stated matter-of-factly. Some other recent experiences prove that the recycling memo is not the only one some folks have missed. As I flattened cardboard and helped explain our local recycling program to new students and their parents, an SUV drove up next to the recycling and waste station. Being a warm and humid afternoon, the father/driver let the engine run to take advantage of the air conditioning. Five minutes turned to ten. When I came back from the dorm next door twenty minutes later, he was still sitting there, engine running.
Even if you are a global warming doubter, it seems impossible that any American could be oblivious to the economic, energy and other air pollution problems caused by running an internal combustion engine unceasingly. It seems even more incomprehensible when the gas-guzzler isn't moving and an air conditioned building is ten steps away. The good news is that these folks were in the minority. Most students and parents were happy to hear that we had a recycling program. Yet despite that good news, the minority remains a sizable one, proving once again that we still have a ways to go.
Everyone, everywhere, all the time – that was the recycling message recently delivered to nearly 30,000 mailboxes in Blair County. Yet nearly half the people that received the Recycle newsletter don't recycle anything. Most of the businesses in the recycling communities recycle only their corrugated cardboard, but none of the other half dozen items they should. About a third of the businesses don't even recycle their cardboard.
Though the amount we recycle has trended ever so slightly upward in the last ten years, many communities' recycling totals have steadily climbed during that same time period. So our local curbside recycling program is actually doing worse in comparison to other Pennsylvania municipalities. The latest figures from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection puts us in the bottom twenty percent of mandated recycling communities, or twenty percentile lower than where we stood in 2005.
In a rather stark contrast, the yard waste composting performance is at the opposite end of the spectrum. Our yard waste totals place us among the top third of best performing programs in the state. Hollidaysburg Borough's performance is even better since they continue their yard trimming collection through the entire summer. Why does this contrast exist? Why does a very large portion of our yard waste go to the right place, while more than half our recycling still goes into the trash? Why do we find alarming amounts of recyclable containers littering our neighborhoods, downtowns, shopping plazas and along our highways? And why do we massive accumulations of trash and recyclables on hundreds of residential properties? While there may be no simple answers to these questions, we can look to three issues: clear rules that can be enforced, service convenience and consumer cost.
The yard waste rules are clear – it won't be collected if it isn't prepared. Leaves and grass must be in paper bags. With a handful of exceptions, yard trimmings never go in the trash. Yard waste collection is not only convenient but it's also affordable. Curbside collection, in fact, is free and is provided to everyone that sets out material in the participating municipalities. Recyclables, on the other hand, can go into the trash, often undetected. Fearing they'll alienate their customers if they raise a raucous about not recycling, haulers are usually (and understandably) hesitant to take action against violators. Consequently, unless the recycling or code enforcement offices identify someone that is not complying, it's difficult to change the behavior of the offending households or businesses.
It's also easy for homeowners and renters to stop paying for waste and recycling service. Consequently, it's likely that several thousand households do not have service during any given month. Trash piles up in the yard, on the porch, in the basement or is illegally burned or dumped somewhere. Recycling, needless to say, is ignored. Even when people have waste service, too many ignore their recycling responsibilities, complaining that it's a nuisance or that they don't feel like doing it. While landfills may not be as disgusting as trash dumps of thirty years ago, they still don't make very pleasant neighbors. And trashing recyclables is an incredible waste of energy and usable, valuable resources.
"If everyone sweeps before his own front door, then the street is clean." German writer Johann Wolfgang van Goethe wrote those words 200 years ago. Yet much of Pennsylvania still doesn’t know how to bring the words of wisdom to fruition. Goethe's advice may be straightforward, but making it a reality has always been more complicated. Keep Pennsylvania Beautiful (KPB) recently released the results of their study, "Illegal Dumping in Pennsylvania: A Decade of Discovery," reaffirming that we do not always keep our figurative porches as clean as we should. Far too much of our waste still ends up in the wrong place and the report offers some suggestions to fix the problem.
KPB's illegal dump inventory confirmed that at least 6,000 illegal dumps existed in the Commonwealth. Though the environmental costs of this problem are significant, KPB found that the economic impacts of illegal dumping were similarly alarming. They concluded that cleaning up illegally dumped waste cost more than $600 per ton. Think about what that means. Collection and disposal costs for traditional waste pickup in Pennsylvania are generally estimated to be about $100-$120 per ton. It costs five or six times more to clean it up from a dump.
Even if citizens and their local governments must invest money to make it happen, it would seem to make sense to do what we can to prevent the dumping. Several studies show that convenient and affordable waste and recycling service greatly reduces the incidence of dumping and open burning. When given the opportunity and resources, the overwhelming majority of people will do the right thing. But these things do not happen magically. Local government must provide or facilitate these services in cooperation and partnership with private sector companies. KPB calls it universal access to service. Everyone must have access to some sort of waste and recycling service.
They are not necessarily calling for curbside service everywhere in Pennsylvania. Rather, it has been proposed that municipalities determine what the best option is for their situation. Some places may be best served by rural drop-offs. Some may provide the service with municipal crews, while others may partner with local haulers. Since the problems go beyond typical trash, the report also recommends addressing special wastes that often end up in illegal dumps. Bulky wastes (especially appliances, furniture and electronics) and construction and demolition waste are common in many dumps because numerous communities ignore.
That means that convenient and affordable recycling opportunities for appliances and other bulky items are just as important as regular trash service. To discourage dumping of construction and demolition waste, proof of disposal or recycling will be required as part of the permitting process. And those that collect and transport even modest amounts of construction and demolition waste or tires will be required to meet certain operational and record keeping standards. These common sense approaches will address a nagging set of problems. A diverse group of advocates (including local government associations and the waste industry) have voiced their support. It seems that nearly everyone agrees that it is the next logical step in better managing and reducing the waste we generate.
If you recycle and try to make less waste, you can now easily end up with more in the recycling bin and yard waste bags than what finds its way into your trash can. Considering that curbside recycling didn't even exist in most communities a quarter century ago, this is an amazing development. With the inclusion of corrugated cardboard and paperboard in our curbside collections, we can now recycle all our paper-based packaging, every scrap of printed paper and all our bottles and cans. Since it is illegal to burn recyclables in mandated recycling communities (and sort of silly to do so anywhere), it also means that there's not much left in the trash to legally set ablaze.
Like recycling of all kinds, it's important to do it properly. Flatten your boxes, stuff them in a larger box and place them next to your other recyclable paper. Save a large cereal box, stick it under your sink and place your flattened paperboard in the box. Set the "box of boxes" out for collection with your paper. The greasy bottom to your pizza box still goes in the trash. But just about every other piece of cardboard, both at home and work, now gets recycled. In fact, for the first time, what you recycle at home is identical to what you recycle at work. It's easy, too. In fact, in many ways some recycling is easier than putting it in the trash bag. Simply replace some of your trash cans with recycling containers. Many folks keep a small paper recycling receptacle near the computer or the place where homework or bill paying is done.
Place a recycling container for your bottles and cans in or near the kitchen. Remember that none of your bottles and cans need to be separated from each other either. Just rinse them out and toss them into the bin together. Despite the apparent convenience and ease of recycling, we are still struggling to get everyone on board. This is true at both at home and work. Sometimes we complain about our trash and recycling haulers. While there have been problems in the past, our hauler compliance is now much higher than our residential and business recycling compliance.
Though it's true those that recycle do it enthusiastically, less than half our households recycle in many neighborhoods. On any given week it seems likely that more than one in ten don't even have waste and recycling service. While many businesses are recycling cardboard, the majority are not recycling anything else at all. At least 85% of the waste and recycling haulers are recycling, yet only about 50% of the residential dwellings are recycling. Probably less than a third of businesses and institutions are recycling everything they should.
Yet there are many success stories in places where they don't even have to recycle. The Martinsburg Area Recycling Center has already sold 250 memberships in that rural portion of the county, even though they have to pay a small fee to help pay for collection costs. Likewise, many businesses are going above and beyond the call of duty. Now if we could just find a way to make that enthusiasm contagious…