Recycling: It Has to Hurt

by Ellen

Recycling Bins -- Photo Credit: Dave Goodman

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:

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Photo Credit: Dave Goodman on flickr.

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Paula September 30, 2010 at 10:09 am

I’d just be happy if people around here would put their trash into their trashcans rather than just dumping them off on the road. I cannot tell you how many times we’ve gone down our dead-end, gravel road and picked up trash. Not even your “good” trash, like aluminum cans we can turn in for $$. I’m talking paper trash, like fast food bags and such. These people live on our road! They can’t even wait 3 minutes to get to their house and throw it in the can.

/rant of the day!

BodyEarth September 30, 2010 at 10:26 am

Wow. That’s really bad, Paula! I can’t imagine what they must be thinking to litter like that. How frustrating for you!

April@ The 21st Century Housewife September 30, 2010 at 10:53 am

Excellent post!! Recycling is such an important thing to do – and most places are making it easier and easier. But I was shocked yesterday when I walked through a small town near here and watched a couple people just drop their trash on the street – literally only a few feet from a garbage can. The worst part is, they laughed about it. It amazes me how people can do it, when it is common knowledge that we really need to take care of our planet! As you say, we need to make it hurt not to recycle!

BodyEarth September 30, 2010 at 11:04 am

Thanks, April! When I wrote about recycling, I didn’t even think about all the trash that never makes it into trash cans (well, aside from the Mad Men reference). Your comment, and Paula’s, are disheartening. A positive spin to your story is that if the offenders laughed, they must have known that what they were doing was wrong. At least maybe they’ve moved away from throwing trash on the ground without thinking about it to a more conscious state. First step? Or, am I being too optimistic?!

Diana September 30, 2010 at 6:28 pm

I’m with you guys, it disgusts me to see people throw garbage on the ground, but it is just as hard to throw away something that could be recycled! I was discussing with my mom how I will carry just about anything in my hand/pocket rather than toss it on the ground (after watching some teens open a pack of gum and just toss the wrapper on the ground).

After composting / giving scraps to chickens, I have a hard time even tossing my food scraps when at friend’s house! I need to have it ‘hurt’ more so I take the next step and take the food scraps home with me!

BodyEarth September 30, 2010 at 7:49 pm

You’re way ahead of me, Diana! How great that you have chickens who get to eat your yummy food scraps. I have a feeling that we’ll all reach a point when throwing away anything at all “hurts.”

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