Recycling revolution begins to roll away

Peter Gillette

Chances are, you haven’t thought about recycling during the past week. Chances are, you haven’t talked about recycling during the past week. But chances are, you’ve recycled something. Recycling has become second nature, in such swift time (a little over a decade) that it’s easy to forget how remarkably Americans have begun to change the way we look at trash. Reusing bottles, while perhaps “bad for the economy” in some shape or form, and reusing paper not only seem like the right thing to do, but the cheaper choice.

“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” entered the public lexicon so surely as to constitute a striking example of mass public reeducation at its finest, an example of how necessity nudges a movement once marginalized to the fringe of environmentalism toward a radical readjustment of the seemingly mundane.

But in a realm marked by the consequentially minute choices each of us semi-consciously daily, the battle is won and lost in whispers. To advocates of recycling, start listening up. Tides are turning, in stages ranging from New York City to your very own Lawrence University computer lab.

An even more important reason to examine recycling is because it is perhaps the most tangibly effective use of grade schools in the shaping of children into “environmentally conscious” citizens.

I still recall (and, if my informal polls of fellow students are any indication, you probably do too) the assemblies I would attend from first grade and following:

“Reduce, reuse, recycle. Reduce, reuse, recycle. Reduce, reuse, recycle.”

“Reduce, reuse, recycle,” became, to our generation, the ubi-quitous educational stock phrase, surpassing for a time even “Stop, Drop, and Roll” and “Lather, Rinse, Repeat.”

The difference between “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,” and the other two, however, is that escaping fiery deaths and upholding reasonable standards of personal hygiene are, more or less, instinctive goals; separating papers, plastics, and glass into separate receptacles for the good of the species is a far more abstract concept to teach a child.

I recall that Mrs. Gehrls, my principal, would close each assembly with those three words — “Reduce, reuse, recycle” — whether we were watching a visiting dance troupe, Mr. Wizard, or Illinois’ Democratic candidate for governor, Neil Hartigan.

Throughout the last 30 years, though, from Oregon’s first “Bottle Bill” in 1971 to 1996, when newsprint prices fell to prices so low that collected paper began losing its market value, recycling took small steps toward being the norm.

It’s important here to draw distinctions between Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. Recycling pumps more money bank into the economy; however, with it creeps in the decidedly non-capitalistic consciousness of waste and reuse.

Wastepaper was quite a hot commodity around 1988: a cheap resource for paper manufacturers. However, for each 1% increase in curbside recycling programs, wastepaper loses 0.3% of its value. Between 1988 and 1994, curbside recycling increased in frequency by 600%. Wastepaper’s value fell by nearly half during these six crucial years of the movement.

This is to suggest that paper is no longer fetching that much money for recycling companies. Beyond that, recycling costs cities a considerable amount to run.

Last winter, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought to kill recycling in a “no sacred cow” proposal that complained that recycling costs $240 per ton, while simply trashing it all costs $130 per ton.

Why buy recycled paper when you can just reuse paper? According to the Wisconsin DNR, in one year we use enough office paper to build a 10-foot-high wall that’s 118 miles long, but we only recycle 65 miles of it. You’re holding on to paper; do the right thing.

Perhaps you could find a use for it. Reusing saves you money. Why buy tinfoil for your lunch when you have a newspaper? And reusing bottles just makes sense.

And if you print text from the Internet, emails — generally anything other than formal prose — wouldn’t it make economic sense to reuse your paper? That’s not an option to you, though, if you use a university-owned printer.

The warranty for LU’s new printers becomes void if any used paper is sent through the machines. LUCC’s Student Welfare Committee was the first to publicize this, in a report earlier this week. The committee is going to look into other solutions to cut down paper waste.

The committee ought to be applauded; but one must be more than a tad concerned that, while busy “taking down” the World Bank, the Committee on Environmental Responsibility was mum on the paper issue. The CER ought to pay more attention to the campus. There’s work to be done here before we change the world.

Bureaucratically, though, maybe there is a lesson here: that throughout the past couple of decades, waste disposal is no longer viewed as a “fringe” interest, but rather as a part of the general welfare whole.

As Americans, we must remember what often filters that sense of “general welfare.” After 9-11, our civic duty was not to pray, was not to learn, was not to commune, but was to spend. Consumerism is, in some sense, a civic virtue.

Paper is no longer such a hot commodity. Neither is plastic. For these reasons, would not at all be surprised if recycling falls out of vogue with the quiet subversion of so much backpage news.

Don’t take your recycling for granted. Remember what you learned in kindergarten, and recognize the breadth of the evolution, no matter how silently it came. Because the change came in the margins, it’s often convenient to forget the realities of a world overflowing with trash.

Recycling posters from the 70s portray a utopian world, where proper trash disposal fixes social order. We’re not there yet, and probably never will be.

But let’s not slide back to the filthy city streets of Stuart-era London.

Mortgaging the future ought to violate each of our civic virtues. If it doesn’t, then perhaps we have our virtues all mixed up.