There’s a scene in one of the early Mad Men television shows that depicts the family on a picnic, out in a field, under a tree. When it’s time to go home, the mom picks up the picnic blanket, shakes all the trash onto the ground, folds the blanket and leaves. Shocked, I realized this practice must have been a common one in the early sixties, because it’s a well-researched show. I’ve often thought back to that scene, wondering if it would have bothered me as much in 1961 to witness it as it does today. Now, it would be a crime. Littering alone carries a hefty fee; not recycling is still a moral issue.
In the early 90’s I was working in California, a state that already took recycling seriously. Not only did our city have weekly curbside recycling pickup, but schools, restaurants and workplaces prominently displayed bins for bottles, cans, and paper waste. After several years of happily recycling whenever the opportunity presented itself, I moved to Boston to go to back to school. While the progressive little city where we lived also offered curbside recycling, there was a dearth of bins at the university. I was surprised to see students tossing newspapers and cans right into the trash without a care in the world. I couldn’t bring myself to do likewise, because by that time it felt so wrong to me that it hurt.
I have a theory about recycling: It has to hurt not to recycle, in order for it to be effective. Hurting can take different forms, ranging from a deep feeling of wrongness to a sensed community shame. Even missing out on a reward might propel someone to collect bottles. Any hurt will do the trick, if not recycling makes you wish that you had.
You may say that people recycle because it makes them feel good, like they’re helping the planet. I agree. But, I would argue that you could take it one step further and say that they will recycle consistently when it’s too repugnant not to. There are times when it’s decidedly easier to throw a plastic bottle in the trash — at a rest stop on a long trip, for example. When it hurts enough, we bring the bottles home to add to our collection (or don’t buy them at all).
As with anything that becomes a habit, perhaps if we practice any kind of recycling for long enough, it will become so much the right thing to do that to do otherwise will be repellent.
Learn more about recycling:
- Play Recycle City to learn about the many ways we recycle.
- Recycling Facts from GrowNYC
- Check out Benefits-of-Recycling. Here’s a list of their Interesting Recycling Facts
- Plastic Recycling Facts, from Earth911.
- A tongue-in-cheek look at ‘How Bad For The Environment Can Throwing Away One Plastic Bottle Be?‘ 30 Million People Wonder, from The Onion.
This post is shared on Simple Lives Thursday.
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Photo Credit: Dave Goodman on flickr.