Waste and Recycling: Whose Problem Is It?

A recent issue of Waste & Recycling News included an editorial, “The Real Waste Problem,” about our culture’s attitudes toward waste disposal. Whoever wrote it was reading my mind (although my mind isn’t quite as articulate as the editorial writer).

With permission from Waste & Recycling News, I’m reprinting the editorial here, in its entirety.

We at Waste & Recycling News embrace our role as the only true newspaper of our industry. We look at the world of recycling and waste as if it were a community. But instead of city limits, our coverage area extends to the nation’s landfills, transfer stations and MRFs.

We report on hard news, features, trends and, yes, even a bit of the “human interest.” That often means we write “strange things left on the curb” stories. We’ve done articles on workers finding puppies in the trash, litters of kittens, meth labs, hand grenades and body parts.

They are always among the most-read stories we write, according to our website data.

Yet these stories reveal more than our industry’s interest in kittens; they reveal a flaw in our nation’s culture. They show how those outside our community truly view their trash cans. And it’s troubling.

An article in our latest print edition tells the story of Ed Shevlin, a New York City sanitation worker who on Flag Day found a tattered United States flag dumped in the trash — next to a dirty diaper. The discovery inspired him to make it his mission to collect and properly dispose of old flags. (In the first 12 days of his campaign, he collected nearly 600.)

Take a step back and think about this for a moment: When facing the responsibility of disposing of an old flag, many folks simply — and carelessly — pass on that responsibility to us, the waste industry. “Old Glory in a landfill? I didn’t put it there. The trash company did.”

This is the essence of our waste “problem.” Although it’s not a conscious act, our culture views its trash containers as magic vessels that make garbage and responsibility disappear. Once something is dropped inside — a flag, recyclables, perhaps a perfectly good coffee maker that lacks the features of a newer model — it becomes somebody else’s problem. No matter if the consumer is the one truly accountable.

We are shocked when some idiot puts a litter of kittens in the trash. But isn’t it the same sort of carelessness and negligence — although to a way lesser degree — as sneaking old motor oil in the garbage, or a dozen aluminum cans that are begging to be recycled?

If our nation is really going to cut its waste, boost its recycling and cherish the environment, our culture must realize that the privilege of owning stuff comes with an obligation to properly dispose of it. Culpability does not end at the rim of the trash can.

The longer I look at our culture’s attitudes toward waste, the more I realize that keeping it out of the landfill involves a lot more than throwing it into the recycling bin instead of the trash can.

There’s a lot more to be said on the subject, but for now, the Waste & Recycling News editorial can speak for me.

How do you feel about these issues? I hope you’ll share your thoughts.

Want to stay in touch with the latest recycling news in the Cleveland area? Just click on the Follow button at the bottom of my blog Home page, or subscribe to my Examiner.com page.

Waste & Recycling News, part of Crain Communications Inc., covers legislative and regulatory activity, market pricing, and management issues that are essential to professionals who collect, transport, process, dispose of, and recover solid waste.


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