It's still winter, yet change is in the air. On recycle day this past Monday, some bins were emptied while others were left untouched by the collection crew. Why? Because Mercer County, which administers Princeton's curbside recycling program, has begun enforcing its ban on various items it deems unrecyclable.
This caught a lot of homeowners by surprise, particularly those who habitually put their recyclables in plastic bags. The lack of enforcement in the past had led to widespread indifference by homeowners, who in addition to flouting the ban on plastic bags would leave at the curb unflattened boxes full of styrofoam, mercury-containing fluorescent lightbulbs, stuffed animals, whatever--all of which would until now dependably disappear into the maw of the recycling trucks.
There is some pleasure in seeing long-ignored rules finally being enforced, but the underlying message homeowners have long been sending is that they want their packaging to be recyclable. This is where the economy and an anti-regulatory mentality have let us down.
Capitalism has some positive traits, but it places emphasis on increasing consumption. To that end, marketing and engineering creativity is focused on designing packaging that will lure the consumer to buy the product. Once the purchase has been made, capitalism thinks its job done, and leaves it to government and the individual to deal with the resulting mess of packaging and the consumed product. That's the unacknowledged socialist (for lack of a better word) side of our economy, where the private profit of consumption leaves behind a shared collective burden of disposal.
Why, in this day and age, 50 years after the first Earthday, are manufacturers allowed to use an infinite variety of packaging without consideration for what can plausibly be recycled, composted, or safely burned for energy?
There is as well a lack of uniformity in the nation's recycling programs. A product can be sold country-wide, but each town, city and county has its own recycling program that may or may not be able to deal with a product's packaging. While Princetonians are being told that plastic bags clog the machinery used to separate recyclables at the recycling plant, some recycling programs, for instance in Cleveland Heights, actually require that all recyclables be put in plastic bags.
Such contradictions led me some years back to organize a visit to the recycling facility that sorts out our mixed recyclables. At the time, and likely still, the destination for our curbside recyclables was the Colgate Paper company, which despite its name accepts a broad range of recyclables. Adding to recycling's contradictions, the company accepts plastics #1-7, but Mercer County has long banned plastics #3-7 from our recycling stream. Over the years, I've made follow-up phone calls to the company, asking what materials really mess with their machinery or otherwise create inconvenience. The only item they would mention was long metal pipes, which you could imagine doing major mischief if they got caught in the myriad moving parts in separating machinery. They did say that plastics #3-7 often require stockpiling for long periods before a market can be found, but would not admit to having to haul non-recyclables to the landfill.
Why the contradiction between Mercer County's rules and those of the separating plant? My guess is that the plant offers to take a broader range of materials in order to serve as many businesses and governments in the area as possible, even though it may not wish to receive the more marginal materials.
Though the rules, and the stories told in an effort to motivate people to follow them, have their share of contradictions, enforcement is the most dependable form of education, since everyone--not only those who care--will suddenly need to follow the rules or deal with an unemptied bin at the end of recycling day. Education happens when there are consequences for behavior.
If the enforcement continues, we will no longer be able to dump on the collection crews teddy bears, lightbulbs, and whatever else we wish were recyclable. But capitalism's dumping on the public sector will continue. As long as they can get away with it, manufacturers will continue to lure us into buying a baffling complexity of materials that frustrate our desire to recycle and place an ever expanding burden on our governments and nature.