Is Recycling a Right?

April 13, 2021 § 2 Comments

I was ready. After months of planning I had finally worked up the courage to cancel my curbside garbage service.

And then all my careful plans got sideswiped.

Olympic-level recyclable sorting

Now I know cancelling my garbage service may not sound like such a big deal, but it was something looming large in my consciousness; after a whole year of thinking about it, I was going to finally MAKE RECYCLING MAKE SENSE. I had it all figured out: by cancelling my garbage service, I would save over $60 per month, or $720 per year. We could take our ordinary recycling, (glass, cardboard, plastics #1 and 2) to the local transfer station, which would recycle it for free. Meanwhile, we’d put difficult-to-recycle plastics (#3-7) in the Terracycle box, which is expensive, but whose cost was now covered by that lovely $720 we were now saving. Perfect! No more fake recycling that quietly dumped our plastics in landfills and impoverished countries; instead everything would go to the best possible place for it to go.

And we could remain a Garbage Free/Zero Waste house.

But fear of change is a powerful de-motivator—I kept finding reasons to put off cancelling our service. I finally got around to calling at the end of January and when I hung up the phone it felt pretty momentous. We were on our own. My husband Steve built me a neat little sorting center in the basement and we began making a regular pilgrimage to the dump. It took more time and effort, but I actually enjoyed the chore of sorting because I felt like I had found a way to make a difference.

Before: When everything was sorted, and they only took what was actually recyclable

Aaaaaaand then it all came crashing to a halt. As we drove up on our most recent trip to the transfer station, Steve and I were confused: why did it suddenly look so… different? As we drove closer we saw that instead of many different bin categories there was now one giant bin with all arrows pointing directly to it. ALL RECYCLING the signs said.

Oh shit, I thought. Single stream.

Now- Single Stream

I got out and spoke to the man in attendance and he explained: the facility had recently been purchased by a large garbage service company out of Albany.

My heart sank. It was exactly the company I had cancelled our curbside pick up from.

But it was worse than just the lie of single stream. Because the signs also indicated that recycling was no longer free.

Stymied, we left and took our carload of carefully sorted recycling with us. The whole way home I was silent.

Grrr.

When I stopped being silent, I was incredulous. By law Vermont requires all residents to recycle. Didn’t my town have to provide recycling services? Wasn’t recycling supposed to be free?

So I started making phone calls. I ended up talking to a lovely woman named Pam Clapp who is the administrator for our county’s Solid Waste Alliance.

“It’s kind of a misnomer that recycling is free,” Clapp told me. “It’s not free.” Although the state of Vermont does prohibit companies from charging for recycling, most pick-up services get around this by having “handling fees” for single stream recycling, bundling it with garbage removal.

And even the ban against charging for recycling may soon be lifted, Clapp told me, because keeping recycling streams properly sorted and “clean” is so labor intensive (read: expensive) due to well-meaning “wishful recyclers,” as well as the possibly-less-well-meaning people who throw things like used diapers and dead deer carcasses in with recyclable materials.

“You’re kidding.” I said. “People do that?”

“Oh yes.” she said.

All I knew was that it seemed I was back to square one. Steve was justifiably tired of playing this game of garbage musical chairs and suggested we consider returning to our old curbside service, since it was all the same company anyway. But I knew that would leave no money for buying Terracycle boxes, so we’d no longer be Garbage Free/Zero Waste. Plus it just felt like going backwards.

Let it never be said that I am not ridiculously stubborn.

After some thought I formulated a new, modified plan: we would use the single stream at the transfer station, only putting in those items which I know are likely to get recycled. At $2.25 per trip, even if we go every week the fee to recycle is only $9 per month or $108 per year… still way better than having curbside service, and it still leaves me with $612 to spend on Terracycle boxes.

It’s funny though. Everyone I talk to about Terracycle invariably cites how very expensive the service is, but no one talks to me about how expensive curbside garbage service is. I have a theory about this. I think it’s not really the expense of Terracycle that is stopping people, since the numbers tell us that the money is essentially the same. Rather, much of it goes back to those same reasons it took me so long to cancel my garbage service in the first place: fear of change. Taking the time to figure it out and create a new habit. More fear.

But we can’t be afraid to change if we want to fix what we’ve been breaking. And we can’t excuse our inaction by saying we don’t have perfect solutions, because change, even incremental change is what gets us heading down a better path.

So I have my new plan and it’s not perfect, but neither am I. Having access to real, effective recycling may not be a right- yet- but with a little ridiculous stubbornness I have no doubt we can get there.

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