Recycling: surely we can do better

Published Tuesday, July 8, 2014 in the New Brunswick Telegraph Journal.

As a proud New Brunswicker, I took a hit to the gut last week.

It happened while I was waiting for lunch at the Canada Day celebration I was attending in a small NB community.  The barbecue line was moving slowly, so my eyes drifted across the grassy area where patrons were continuously arriving, settling in at picnic tables and departing.  

A woman who was just leaving caught my eye.  She was obviously looking around for a place to get rid of her plate, napkin and beverage container.  She spotted a cluster of bins, went over to them and tossed in her plate and napkin.  But then she hesitated, and the reason was clear: she was looking for a place to recycle her pop can.

All of the bins in the cluster were for trash, so I expected she’d just glance around briefly, give up and toss in her pop can.  But to my pleasant surprise, she scanned across the entire picnic area for, I’m guessing, at least 10 seconds.  That’s persistence, I thought as I watched.

There actually was a recycle bin on site, but it was situated far off in one corner, out of her view.  She didn’t see it, so, after her look around, she gave in and dropped her pop can into the trash.  Darn, I sighed.  

But then an amazing thing happened.  She spotted the recycling bin in the distance, went back to the trash bin, retrieved her pop can plus another that someone else had dropped in (there were quite a few to pick from), and walked them over to the recycling bin.  

Wow, I thought.  Really impressive.  And because I’m a big fan of positively reinforcing deeds done right, I took the unusual step of walking over and congratulating her for her persistence in doing the right thing.

“Thank you,” she said.  “It just kills me to throw recyclables in the trash.”

And that’s when I took the hit to my gut.  She added, “Where I’m from, we recycle everything.”  

Ouch.  It turned out my ideal New Brunswick recycler was a visitor from outside the province.

We can do better

I’ve since spent a bit of time contemplating that incident, and three key thoughts have emerged.

First, we humans are like rivers: we follow the path of least resistance.  Unfortunately, when it comes to solid waste disposal in NB, that path of least resistance is typically a trash bin, because trash is free.  It doesn’t matter whether you put out one bag a week or ten; the cost is the same.  I wish we could recycle for free but had to pay for each bag of trash we produced, because we’d very quickly become world-class recyclers.

Second, I believe most people want to do the right thing, but it’s got to be easy.  Hiding a recycling bin in a distant corner is not a formula for success; putting a clearly labelled recycling bin near every trash bin is.  As the expression from the movie Field of Dreams goes, if you build it, they will come.

Third, we are blessed to live in a land of abundance but the downside is that we have developed a culture of waste: it seems everything gets thrown away.  Societal attitudes can be changed, but transitioning from a culture of waste to a culture of resourcefulness takes leadership, commitment and education.  I really wish we had a simple, consistent, provincewide recycling regime, but even more I wish we were inundated with constant education and messaging about the importance of recycling, to help transform our way of thinking.

Because, New Brunswick, when it comes to recycling, I know we can do better.