I used to lead environmental education outreach classes in Durham, NC elementary schools. One of my favorite activities to run was a recycling relay – I brought a bag full of cans, tin foil, bottles, some snack wrappers, tissue paper and other little items, and teams had to separate out which items were recyclable and which would head to a landfill. This challenge was so hard. Why can you recycle an cereal box but not a pizza box? Soda bottles but not prescription bottles? Printer paper but not waxed paper?
Years later, I feel like I do this challenge every day. I live in a house with 6 people and I’m constantly picking frozen food wrappers and tissue paper out of the recycling. I’m sure I try to recycle things that can’t be recycled, or take things out of the bin that actually could get recycled. I try really hard to be “green” and recycle everything I can, and I still feel like I miss the mark all the time. Even when checking on the Seattle Public Utilities website, the information can be really confusing and contradictory. How can we expect everyone to recycle when it’s so complicated?
The main reason people don’t recycle is because it is often inconvenient and confusing. Cities need to work harder to make sure that recycling bins are placed alongside garbage bins in public places, and require that businesses place them together as well so that inconvenience can’t be used as an argument against recycling. The city should also provide labels for both public and private use that clearly denote – both visually and verbally – what kinds of products can be placed in recycling bins.
A lot of businesses in the Seattle area have already made great strides to make recycling (and composting!) really easy to figure out. Some have clearly marked receptacles separated with images showing where each item you may have purchased can be appropriately discarded. SeaTac Airport has very well labeled bins that distinctly show what can and cannot be recycled or composted. SeaTac is particularly notable because the multi-lingual audience can navigate the tricky system by using the visuals provided on the bins.
Recycling should be second nature, but it’s hard to form a habit when the process is so convoluted. Until recycling procedures can be standardized nationally, local governments should take on the burden of ensuring their residents are appropriately educated about what materials can or cannot be recycled.