Monday, April 20, 2020

For Recycling: Necessity Is the Best Educator

The pandemic has demonstrated how quickly people can change their ways and adapt to new circumstances when they have to.

Another example is how quickly homeowners have adjusted to new restrictions on what can be recycled curbside. The rules were always in place, while earnest environmentalists and town staff labored unsuccessfully for years to convince homeowners to voluntarily comply.

The underlying message of all those calls for voluntary compliance was, alas, that compliance is voluntary, and therefore unimportant and unnecessary. That's the message people picked up on.

Only when collection crews began leaving contaminated bins of recyclables uncollected at the curb did homeowners wake up. They experienced what I would call "catharsis interruptis." Most bins went uncollected the first week, due to contamination with plastic bags, motor oil containers, etc. On the second collection, maybe a third of the bins remained unemptied.

By the third pickup, nearly all homeowners had gotten the message and adjusted their recycling habits to fit requirements, except for a stray pizza box (the greasy cardboard isn't recyclable) and some unflattened boxes.

In other words, necessity achieved in a month what education initiatives failed to achieve in twenty years. People may seem stuck in their ways, but that's deceptive. Impose necessity and we suddenly become very adaptable and quick to change.

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