PORTLAND, ORE. — One aspect of the World Summit on Sustainable Development that generated lots of jokes from critics was the large amount of trash produced at the conference and the minimal success of recycling efforts. If any summit planners had asked me about this ahead of time, I could have tipped them off about what to expect.
According to one news story, recycling bins were placed in conference halls but often ended up being used as garbage cans. No surprise there, at least to anyone who has ever hosted a potluck dinner or other social event. Regardless of how carefully you organize the disposal system, with brown bags clearly marked "cans" and "bottles," a significant number of guests will simply toss their paper plates and leftover food into the nearest receptacle.
As a longtime recycling advocate, I'm pleased it has become an everyday feature of modern culture. But I'm also baffled and frustrated by how often the process breaks down on the very last step, so that reusable products don't make it into the proper bin. It's like setting up a great play in basketball and then missing the open shot.
Part of the problem is that recycling has become so inclusive. Back in the 1960s when the movement was just starting, the two main targets were glass and aluminum beverage containers. Not terribly complicated, although it did take extra time to soak the labels off the bottles. Now, along with millions of other Americans, I have curbside pickup for a wide variety of items, and there are specific guidelines about how each one should be prepared and sorted. The long list of rules is where bad things happen to good recyclers.
When I stroll along my block on collection day, it's not unusual to see many of the orange bins on the sidewalk filled with strange, chaotic assortments of household flotsam. Newspapers are mixed with cardboard. Instead of being washed clean as required, jars and cans are often encrusted with the residue of old mayonnaise or chili beans.
The story is much the same at my local paper company, which operates a dropoff center. This is a place where people have made the effort to load up their cars and drive to a collection point, and their good intentions are undone at the finish line. A typical moment of frustration happened recently when I looked into the giant container of scrap paper and saw bundles of office waste that had been diligently saved from heading to a landfill. But it was all stuffed into plastic garbage bags. Plastic in the paper bin is a big no-no.
When I got involved in ecology issues 35 years ago, I thought by now we'd be reusing about 80 percent of our discarded material. Big miscalculation. I know some pundits say the benefits of recycling are exaggerated and it will never be economical. I hope they're wrong, and I'm going to keep at it. When it comes to reducing the waste stream, my enthusiasm is self-sustaining.