FOR the past five months, more than a dozen waste barrels clustered in a remote corner of the newsroom have given a very '90s touch to our office d'ecor. They have also added a new routine to our workday: sorting trash. On one side of the corridor, two containers are labeled ``White Paper'' and ``Colored Paper.'' On the other side, a large bin bears a sign reading ``Newsprint and Magazines.'' A few steps away, 10 more receptacles sport labels specifying their contents: ``Computer Paper,'' ``Glass Bottles,'' ``Cans Only,'' ``Phone Books and Other Paperbacks.'' When all other categories fail, there is, mercifully, a catchall bin labeled ``Trash.''
The scene at this makeshift collection center can become comic as savvy, globe-trotting journalists find themselves stymied by the small refinements of recycling: Does a press release printed on white paper with a red logo across the top go in the ``white'' barrel? (Yes.) What about pages stapled together? (``Staples OK!'' reads a hand-lettered note taped to the wall above the basket.) Are envelopes acceptable? (``Clear windows no good - trash!'' ``Peel-off labels no good - trash!'') Kraft paper? (``No good - trash.'') Still other signs on the wall caution us, ``Glossy no good - put with newsprint,'' and ``Post-Its are not recyclable!''
Elsewhere, instructions taped to newsroom photocopiers offer advice on another ``tree-saving measure'' - how to make two-sided copies. And an inter-office memo urges employees throughout the organization to recycle old in-house phone directories after the latest version is delivered this week - an effort that could yield half a ton of paper.
It is easy for a newly converted recycler to feel oh-so-virtuous about all this sorting. And indeed, according to one estimate, recycling a ton of office paper saves 17 trees and keeps 60 pounds of pollution out of the air.
But beyond any specific savings that might result from these individual acts, there are other benefits that extend far beyond the office. The symbolic value of recycling is high, giving participants a heightened awareness of waste in all its forms.
A paper-sorter wonders: How much of the trash from a fast-food meal is recyclable? And how many separate bins would be needed to dispose of the four wrappings encasing a single bar of Calvin Klein Obsession soap? Although a Consumer Reports article this month gives the product a high rating, editors also award it their ``trash prize.'' They report that the soap, which costs $13.50 for a 4 1/2-ounce bar, ``nestles inside a plastic wrapper inside a plastic egg inside a corrugated sleeve inside a cardboard box.'' How much lower might the price be if the soap were wrapped less ostentatiously?
Recycling paper, of course, represents only one small solution to growing environmental challenges. The battle cry of the '90s - ``Save a tree'' - remains an important goal. But largely forgotten is the credo of the mid-'70s: ``Save a trip'' - car pool, consolidate errands, cut down on fuel consumption. Even as gas edges up to $1.50 a gallon and motorists again experience sticker-shock at the pump, government leaders still have not formulated a national energy policy or issued a call for energy conservation.
Are Americans perhaps subconsciously hoping that if we recycle enough barrels of paper we can keep importing those barrels of oil at any price, without changing our lifestyle in significant ways? To look at the barrels in the newsroom is to see revived the old tidy dream of the suburban homemaker. If only things could be organized - the towels in the linen closet, the spices on the kitchen shelves, the out-of-season clothes in the attic - then chaos in all its subtler and darker forms would disappear, too.
But there are disposables that just won't fit into labeled barrels - the megatons of toxic, not to mention radioactive, waste. And into what bin can we put the air-conditioned coolness we may have to reduce in the summer and the furnace heat in the winter?
Since the barrels are more than gestures but less than solutions, perhaps an empty barrel should be placed beside the others, containing the cautionary message: ``Keep filling your bins. But remember - restoring balance and order to Planet Earth will require more than a little no-sweat housekeeping.''