Thursday, January 22, 2009

Recyclers of Wichita, Unite!

Okay, I doubt the cause this time around is as romantic as the last time I invoked The Communist Manifesto's most famous line, but I couldn't think of anything better.

So this morning was trash day. Unlike many other communities in Sedgwick County, Wichita itself has thus-far refused to enter into a single contract or franchise with any company for trash collection, leaving the picking up and disposing of trash to be handled by numerous small and independent haulers which individuals citizens pay for. This is good, in that it avoids the corruption and bureaucracy which so often characterize top-down corporate-city deals; but this is also bad, in that recycling (which is--due to the absence of any local, state, or federal laws mandating such, at least not around here--a mere extra to be paid for out of your own pocket if you wish) ends up being more expensive, since the extra work involved in the extensive picking up and sorting recyclables is not widely distributed, and thus not particularly cost-efficient for many of these small haulers to offer, when they offer it at all. It's your classic collective action problem.

This is frustrating to Melissa and I, which probably isn't surprising to any reader of this blog. We strive for localism, we bicycle, we re-use and buy cheap and try to do without. So of course, we're big fans of recycling, and don't at all mind it being mandated by law if that's the most efficient and complete way to do it (which is often the case). We'd been without the ability to recycle a lot of basic goods for years, while we lived in Mississippi and Arkansas; Illinois was a breath of fresh air, but then we moved to Wichita, and found the service spotty, at best. We ended up going with Waste Connections, one of the bigger players in the Wichita market, because they seemed to offer the best recycling program.

So anyway, I go outside this morning to drop off the trash...and this is what I see in our driveway:



Pretty awesome. Waste Connections had let all their customers know that some new containers and trucks had been purchased, and that therefore the availability of recycling was going to be increased--finally, glass and office paper and cardboard and more than one kind of plastic!--but we had no idea what it would actually involve. I suppose it's a little ridiculous to get all excited about new recycling container, but we're that kind of nerd; I promptly ran inside to tell Melissa, and she was duly impressed.

Of course, what I'd really be impressed by is Wichita getting with the program, making recycling a priority, and mandating it, thus by maximizing participating lowering over costs for all. But until that happens, Melissa and I are happy to be able to live ever so slightly cleaner, slightly less cluttered, slightly more responsible lives, right from our front door.

[Note: I guess I should explain that, yes, I am fully aware of the various economic impact calculations that have been made of recycling efforts over the years, many of which have concluded that melting down plastic and reprocessing paper and grinding up aluminum is ultimately a waste of time and fuel and money, and I am not persuaded by any of them. Why? Because they misunderstand the point of recycling. The point is not to ultimately lower overall energy use (a worthy goal, but one probably better achieved through other means), not to save us from being overrun by garbage (thankfully, there are few places around the globe where the future of WALL*E is anything except very, very distant, though of course it can't hurt to start changing things now), but rather to simply stop using so much stuff. Forget all the environmental lamentations and warnings (as applicable and truthful as many of them are); there's just no good reason to throw something away when you can re-use. As has been said, use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without. Recycling is a big part of that ethic--or, at least, ought to be.]

13 comments:

Matt said...

The thing like this that has most made my happy is getting some cloth bags for groceries. I almost always use them now and it's cut down my use of paper or plastic by a huge amount. Thankfully, trader joes sells ones that are both nice and cheap (I'm especially fond of one they have made from recycled milk bottles that can be folded into a very small size.) It's a good way to cut down on junk.

Bob said...

To support Russell's point that we need to stop using stuff (and to a lesser extent avoid being over-run with garbage), I live about 10 miles from the largest landfill site in the UK that covers about 284 hectares and has been in use since 1900.
It is planned to close the site in 2015 and restore it, although to what is not known in detail.
Now this site has been in use for 115 years and I bet nobody has any has any real idea of what's in it and how deep it goes. So they restore the site and for argument's sake build some low cost housing but would the owners live on a timebomb of chemicals?
Easy to say that this should have been thought of earlier 30, 40, 50 years ago but if you don't use stuff you don't create the potential for a major disaster.
Glad your recycle problem has been solved Russell, despite( or perhaps because of) the landfill that is one thing our local council are strong on.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Matt, I agree: a big thumbs up to the cloth grocery bags. It's really obvious, even silly; it makes me wonder how it is that we all (or our parents, or our grandparents) ever came to accept paper and plastic bags in the first place. Sure, sometimes I guess for storage or carrying purposes it's good to have "disposable" bags, but really, cloth is just in almost every way nicer. (I haven't seen the Trader Joes ones; I'll have to keep an eye out for them.

Russell Arben Fox said...

Bob, you're right about many landfills being "a timebomb of chemicals." I didn't mean in my post to downplay the problem; it's just that some advocates of recycling like to make their case in terms that suggest we're all suffocating in garbage, which isn't the case: there's still plenty of open spaces left on this planet where we can actually put all our crap. The real issue though, as you highlight, is what happens after we put it there. Alan Weisman wrote a fine and powerful book that I read last year, The World Without Us, and one of the things he goes into some detail on is just how long--if ever!--it'll take for all the sewage, plastic, chemicals, rubber, industrial byproducts, and so forth that we've just thrown away to decompose and cycle its way through the environment...and, of course, what kind of harm it'll do to the ecosystems of the planet as it does so. Looked at that way--just in terms of all this stuff that's buried somewhere, moldering away (or not!)--the argument for trying to re-use as much of it as possible seems obvious to me.

MH said...

Our grocery store stopped using plastic bags (except for the little ones for your produce and the really big ones for pies), so we've got a bunch of cloth bags. However, we are supposed to put out our recycling in blue bags. Everyone uses grocery bags for this, but now we won't have any once we use the last of our stock. The fact that our stock lasted for about 6 months shows just how many of these bags were thrown around, but it is still a problem. I'm thinking of using the plastic bags I get from other places and writing "Assume this bag is blue" on them.

Anonymous said...

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SC3CZBDz7Wg

Russell Arben Fox said...

Anonymous, I was actually thinking about that old episode of Bullshit! when I wrote the note at the end of my post. Penn and Teller are funny people, and they synthesize a lot of the relevant information in a sharp way. They have some calculation in that same episode, in which--if I remember correctly--they estimate all the gargabe the country produces in a year, figure out how much space such garbage would take up, then hypothesize a hole, exactly one mile long and wide and deep, dug somewhere in the middle of North Dakota, demonstrate how many years it would take for all the aforementioned garbage to fill it up, and then slowly pull back, to show how miniscule that hole would be in the context of the North American continent. Ok, fine, we get it: assuming all the problems of transportation and disposal could be worked out, we clearly need not imagine ourselves as about to inhabit WALL*E's world. But, as I said, that's not really the point, is it? The problem isn't that all our crap is literally crowding us off the planet (yet); the problem is that all our crap is making the planet less livable, particularly in the places where we're putting it.

Doug said...

While we're going on about it, one of the better technical fixes would be to muck about in the regulation of packaging. What I think that Germany (and perhaps the rest of the EU) is to push hard for producers of consumer goods to reduce the amount of packaging that's associated with their products, and for what packaging there is to be recyclable.

I've lived away from the States for a while now, so things may have improved, but memory -- and packages arriving from Over There -- say that there's an awful lot of stuff you don't want wrapped around the stuff you do want. None of that stuff you don't want gets used at all, so better to make as little of it as possible in the first place.

Russell Arben Fox said...

[O]ne of the better technical fixes would be to muck about in the regulation of packaging. What I think that Germany (and perhaps the rest of the EU) is to push hard for producers of consumer goods to reduce the amount of packaging that's associated with their products, and for what packaging there is to be recyclable.

I can certainly get behind that, Doug; it's an important point. And your memory of how things are sold and packaged in the States isn't at all inaccurate; we're still very much in the toy-buying stage of our family, and having just finished up with Christmas, I can confirm just what an amazing load of useless, frustratingly shrink-wrapped and molded, tough to cut plastic and cardboard and wire come along with every assemble-yourself scooter or dollhouse or whatever. Even when you strive for a locally bought, relatively uncommercial holiday, it ends up filling the gargabe can.

MH said...

The William Sonoma catalog just came. They have a $300 stainless-steel kitchen recycling center (with built-in crusher and a beeper to remind you what day your supposed to put recycling out) and a $400 electric composter (heats, turns, and aerates). Now environmentalism is going to be so easy for me.

Anonymous said...

Sorry to illicit a long response from you, I should have commented my link. I hadn’t read your note till after posting. The link wasn’t for the sake of arguing, just a funny clip on topic. Some comments on the comments. Regarding packaging, do you think the manufacturers have worked out the extent of packaging necessary to protect from loss? If loss where to increase due to reduced packaging, the cost is still going to the consumer with an increase in resources used. I’m sure there’re the exceptions; I just would tend to think cost and efficiency prevail here. A $400.00 ELECTRIC composter with FILTER, there is so many ways to approach this: $400.00 would buy how much compost from home depot, there was a comment from the Sonoma site to the effect of not worrying about filling up the landfills because of this handy gadget (It’s organic, not any different than a dead tree, animal, or fruit lying on the ground decomposing), etc. It’s this non-thinking that leads to unnecessary consumption, waste, and thereby the increased need to recycle. But selling folks “consumption” as the problem, is like selling “recycling” as the solution. We need to change the earlier mentioned mind sets (who the folks at Bullshit are poking fun—yeah, I’d use ten barrels to recycle). If we are to reuse things, we need to get folks accustomed to quality (sometimes you have to spend more to get more). So I’m with you on the reuse point, but we are so far from understanding quality anymore, and it would solve so many problems…

MH said...

I think Williams Sonoma used to have a $6,000 espresso machine and I didn't see that in the latest (I think the most expensive was $2,200.) Its a process.

Anonymous said...

Mandates and regulations and 'getting serious' about everything and nothing also makes life less livable all over the place.

I don't think you've thought through your reasons for recycling. You disclaim the environemental reason but then you get back to it. Like most of us, your reasons are probably post hoc but that doesn't mean they have to be contradictory or ill-founded.

What evidence is there that recycling reduces toxic contamination? Most recycling requires intensive industrial processes.

Also, although I'm in favor of 'use it up, wear it out,' that kind of thing, its not actually about owning less stuff at all. Its about owning more stuff, really. Instead of becoming less material, one becomes more material; instead of owning things merely to induce pleasurable sensations in oneself, one owns them for the sake of ownership. That's the only rational rationale I can see for owning a cloth shopping bag. That and a sort of self-reliance, which is also admirable.

Your reference to 'stuff' makes me think you've watched that dreadful internet agitprop.

-Adam Greenwood