EDITOR’S VIEWPOINT/The accidental recycler
I would like to say that I am a devoted recycler, but to confess, I only recycle for two reasons: guilt and my wife. Even as she is out of town this week, I am trying to maintain our high recycling standards — established by emotional fiat by you know who. So I am dutifully placing our newspapers in the newspaper pile and the magazines in the designated cloth bag. However, I have drawn the line at cleaning out the cat food cans and have thrown away a couple of them along with a few glass containers. I could not help myself. Once you start throwing away garbage, it’s difficult to stop.
Therein lies the problem. After decades of earnest and costly efforts to change Americans’ disposal habits and the perceptions about the materials they no longer want, recycling still faces an uphill battle. Why? Because sustaining a successful recycling program requires changing part of our value system.
At the top of the list, Americans value their possessions. I’m sure you noticed that marketers have been working nonstop to convince you that what you own reflects who you are. That concept is personified by branding, which tries to distinguish products from their competitors and us from our neighbors.
You have to admit, they’ve done a pretty good job of persuading many of us that a Lexus isn’t a Toyota with better seat covers, and that there’s a world of difference between a Polo brand and an Arrow brand shirt, even though they were probably both made in the Third World. Creating products to bolster our self-importance has led to a society of people who own three or four cars, not the one or two our parents needed, and four to six televisions and telephones compared to the two we might remember being glued to as kids.
Next on the list of American values is convenience, which complements the marketing concept that we are important people with the idea that we are busy people, too. How did we get so busy? By working harder and being more productive than just about any other workers in the world. We barely have enough time left to enjoy showing off our bunches of new clothes, cars or other toys. But don’t worry, our neighbors don’t have much time to be impressed with them, either.
Solid waste has become a permanent stitch in the economic fabric of our country, so trying to weave in a few new ideas — like recycling — is challenging, especially when it is cheaper and easier to “put it in the trash.” As a result, most people don’t think twice about throwing things away. In fact they don’t even think about it once. Recycling has the power to change our mindless addiction to disposal by encouraging us to believe that there are consequences to throwing something away. It will take considerable political will and a sustained marketing effort — the same tactics used by Proctor and Gamble.
There is irony in our two-decade-long love affair with recycling. Despite the fact that we recycle and compost about 30 percent of all the solid waste we generate, we still generate more waste than ever. We may be in love with the idea of recycling, but we are married to consumption. And speaking of being married, I’d better go fish out those cat food cans and glass jars before the garbage truck comes.