The Other Side of the Mountain

The best system in the world won’t work unless people actually use it.

To wait for government to lead the way is to wait forever. Government has rarely been a great leader; we, the people, lead, and the government — sometimes, and often reluctantly — follows. This is certainly true when it comes to recycling. In other words, it’s up to us, folks!

In a previous column (Commentary, Dec. 7, 2005 Xpress), I recounted how well my wife and I had learned to recycle while living in the “northern South” some years ago. I also cited our recycling achievements — and the lack of them — here in Asheville and Buncombe County. Since then, I’ve toured the Curbside Recycling facility in Woodfin with General Manager Stan Olensky and learned a few more things. So in this column, let’s address what does and doesn’t work.

Having to pay extra to recycle is a serious inducement to just throw everything away. And paying extra for those “special” blue (and nonrecyclable!) bags just fries the gizzards of many area residents.

Another major hurdle is collecting trash and recyclables in the same truck, so that the waste stream needs to be sorted out at the destination. It leaves too many people saying, “I just don’t believe it gets separated.” (It does, by the way — GDS, the waste hauler serving most of Buncombe County, passes the blue bags on to Curbside Recycling for processing.)

However, separation at the source remains the most important step in the entire recycling process. We must provide separate containers for waste and for recyclables. We might not want to go to the extreme seen in Germany, where each house has a whole little family of different-colored bins out back. But at the very least, each home, each store, each business needs to have several separate, distinctive containers.

Making recycling easy is another key to making it work. The more readily available the separate containers are, the better. And reusable recycling bins seem to make more sense to most people — the throwaways just seem to run counter to the whole spirit of the enterprise. The same goes for simultaneously collecting trash and recyclables; keeping them on different schedules helps reassure people that recycling is actually happening.

But the best system in the world won’t work unless people actually use it. And that underscores the need for education — formal and informal, in schools and in newspapers — to encourage more folks to think twice before “just pitching it.”

Of course, when it comes to recycling, there are no perfect communities. I’ve recently seen aluminum cans in the regular trash at UNCA. And in the northern South, I often picked up aluminum beer cans along the sides of rural roads while on my morning biking expeditions.

Human frailty aside, however, one really good way to reduce the waste stream is to adopt a beverage-container deposit. Look at the roadsides of states that have such laws and you’ll see a huge decrease in littering. To have a chance of working, such a plan would have to be implemented statewide, and it can be expected to draw well-funded opposition — particularly from the companies that make throwaway containers (which cost the beverage industry several times more than the contents do). Little wonder, then, that these companies will fight to continue manufacturing a product that has to be continually replaced!

That won’t eliminate the need for recycling, however, and when you’re dealing with hundreds of thousands of people, this becomes a complex enterprise requiring cooperation on the part of the county, municipalities and contractors. That’s a tall order, but with sufficient citizen interest and pressure, it can be achieved. Having the same rules for contractors and municipalities, both at the landfill and at the recycling center, makes for a level playing field.

It also helps when recycling is handled as a normal part of the waste stream — maybe even by the same company that picks up the trash. And separating cardboard from trash, as we do in Buncombe County, really pays off. Separating construction debris from trash is another very positive move, because “rubble fills” are much easier to manage than landfills.

So how can we tell if we’re making progress? Last year’s Bele Chere festival provided designated containers for recycling bottles and cans. That’s progress! But when the festival was over, the containers were removed. That undercut the progress.

When all city festivals encourage people to recycle — and when those recycling containers remain in use year round — we’ll be aimed in the right direction. When more local schools begin separating trash from recyclables, we’ll know the educational community is on board. (Both UNCA and Warren Wilson College already have vigorous recycling programs.) When apartment buildings and condo developments follow suit (as the one I live in already has), we’ll be getting there. When local businesses understand that it’s in their best interest to recycle, that will be a major step forward. When most local families are separating their trash and recyclables, we’ll be on our way. And when we all go a little bit out of our way to buy products made from recycled materials, we add pull to push in a way that ripples through the whole recycling equation!

Learning to recycle successfully takes time; it won’t happen overnight. But it can happen here in Asheville and Buncombe County if we, the people, continue to press the issue. Practice, practice, practice recycling: Friends don’t let friends throw away a recyclable beverage container!

[George Keller is an adjunct professor of physics at UNCA. He’s the volunteer webmaster for RiverLink and also serves on the Asheville Civic Center Commission.]

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