Monday, February 17, 2014

Knot Now--Nonsensical Non-Recycling

Build it, and they will ignore it. In the lobby of the Princeton Particle Physics Laboratory, the staff have built monuments to recycling--impressively edifying edifices, temples to diversion from the landfill--and put them on full display in the lobby and lecture hall.

After sipping coffee and munching on generously supplied bagels and donuts before the Science on Saturday lecture, the crowd had plenty of paper cups and napkins to throw away. The lined up containers were like a choir, calling to us to put the paper products in the receptacle for compostibles.

And where did people tend to throw their paper--this brainy bunch, intellectually curious enough to seek out a lecture on the mathematics of knot tying on a Saturday morning, and resourceful enough to find the PPPL campus despite lousy google map directions and minimally marked winding roads? (Maybe I'm the only one without GPS, or who didn't look at PPPL's directions.)Without a thought, or perhaps consumed by other thoughts, the attendees I observed completely ignored the recycling signage and the nicely contrasting containers and threw all their paper in the trash.

It may be that the concept of composting paper products is too new for people to have changed their habits. But it's also likely that brains big enough to delve into the subtleties of Reidemeister Moves and Tricoloration knot theory are not going to pause to consider the individual's trivial but measurable role in solid waste management. Perhaps each paper cup needs its own GPS to direct the user to the nearest compost bin. Otherwise, we seem to be at the mercy of an extremely primitive instinct. When it comes to awareness of what each of us litters the world with, the brain must have a convenient shutoff valve.

One paper cup tossed here or there is of course trivial, and yet the cumulative effect of something as trivial as individual snowflakes falling on the ground can bring whole cities to a standstill. It is the repetition of trivial acts, be they carbon dioxide molecules streaming from exhaust pipes and chimneys, the consequent accumulation of carbonic acid in the oceans, and the water dripping from Greenland's ice sheet, that will ultimately determine our fate. That seems to be something that most brains are cleverly wired not to understand.

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