To Be (a recycler) or Not To Be?


Bill Tune

“To recycle, or not?” That is the question.  My emphatic answer is, “Sometimes!”

This essay is not intended to extol the virtues of recycling, but rather to share my efforts over the years, which have met with varying degrees of success and/or failure.

Recycling newspapers was my first attempt at “going green,” probably some time in the mid-to-late 90’s.  I have always enjoyed my newspapers, even more so after I retired and had time to work the puzzles.   Sports and comics have always been a must-read, plus whatever other news I had time for.  I usually subscribe to two papers – one local plus either Austin, Dallas, or Houston, depending on which is closer.  This means they accumulate rather quickly.   I started out by tying up bundles with string and delivering them to a drop-off location, but I’ve also lived in cities that offered curbside recycling, collecting once a week.  Recycling newspapers makes sense to me.  In spite of all the electronic news these days, there are still a lot of papers and local ads being delivered the old-fashioned way.  Returning them to a system where they can be used again is better for everyone, and it makes the trash bags lighter.

The recycling of aluminum cans is probably the most successful of all such efforts because people can make money.  Most densely populated areas have at least one metal recycling facility that pays cash to people who turn in their empty aluminum cans.  It doesn’t pay a lot per pound, but some people make significant money by collecting cans from other sources, including along the roadside, which helps reduce litter.  Groups who pool their cans can compound the monetary rewards of aluminum recycling.  Thus, some organizations use this as a fundraiser.  If you’re not interested in the money side of recycling, many cities include cans as part of their curbside recycling service.

The next most common thing to recycle is plastic.  Now this can be a bit daunting due to the wide variety of plastics being used today.  Some recycling programs only include Type 1 & Type 2 plastics, which means one has to find the number in a small triangle-shaped symbol located on the bottom of the bottle (or the top, or the side). Fortunately, I have a magnifying glass handy, because sometimes a miniscule number stamped on a piece of clear plastic is difficult to read, and I swear they make them smaller every year.  Of course, once you learn what kind of plastic you’re working with, this procedure is needed less often.

Bottled water and soft drinks are the main culprits in filling our plastics bin (Type 1 plastics!).  We eased that burden significantly when we switched from buying individual bottled water by the case, to a water delivery service, which brings it in 5-gallon jugs.  We still have a lot of plastic, though.

Speaking of plastic, how about grocery bags?  I was shopping in a small grocery store in Ireland in 2005, and I was stunned to discover that they didn’t provide carryout bags.    It’s always a shock when we discover that the whole world does not do things exactly as we do.  As inconvenient as it was at the time, it made me realize that it was not a bad idea.  People there know to bring their own cloth bags. 

Most grocery stores in the US will recycle the plastic bags they provide, but I finally became a fan of bringing my own reusable cloth bags.  It was a 4-step process:

1.First, I decided that I wanted to use the cloth bags.  They hold more and are easier to carry.

2.Second, I purchased some bags.  In fact, I now have bags from 3 different grocery chains.

3.Third, I began shopping for groceries with this thought in mind, “I sure wish I had remembered to bring the cloth bags!”

4.Finally, I learned to keep the bags in the car so they would always be there.

It was awkward at first, and there was definitely some emotional inertia to overcome, but like most change, it soon became the natural thing to do.  However, I’m not a purist.  I still occasionally use the store’s plastic bags.  Sometimes I forget to bring them in from the car, or I may take in one bag and then end up purchasing more items than I originally intended.  Plus, I haven’t adopted this procedure for non-grocery stores, even though I could.

Batteries.  This was my biggest failure.  Of all the things that go into our dumps that could be toxic over time, I think the copious numbers of small batteries we use is near the top of the list.  My last teaching job was as a math teacher at a large high school.  We used dozens of calculators that used hundreds of AA batteries.  I decided to take the initiative to recycle and did some on-line research.  Radio Shack recycles batteries.  Excellent!  I started collecting the dead batteries and periodically took a large bag of them to the local Radio Shack.  I explained what I was doing, and the batteries were accepted, even though I did notice some hesitation on the part of the clerk each time.  On my third or fourth trip to recycle batteries, I happened to catch the store manager at the desk.  I gave my usual spiel and started to hand him the batteries when he informed me that only rechargeable batteries could be recycled.  Everything I had taken to them before had been put in the trash.  Thus ended the great battery-recycling project of ’07.

One of my teacher friends, whose wife is from Sweden, claims that over there the tech stores have collection boxes for the purpose of recycling these batteries.  Maybe here someday….

Recycling for me has been a gradual process.  I started with one or two areas, and then in time, more and more opportunities have become available.  My newspaper recycling has expanded to include cardboard.  We seem to accumulate a lot of cardboard these days – everything comes in a box!  It is no longer a big deal to break down the cardboard boxes and take them in with the newspapers. 

I have seen phone and ink cartridge recycling bins in Office Depot.  Friends have taught me that Spec’s Liquor will recycle cork, and most package delivery stores will take your packing peanuts.

As much as I enjoy recycling, I’m not a fanatic about it.  I still don’t have a convenient option for glass, so that goes in the trash.  I recycle a lot of paper in the house (besides the newspapers), but a good bit still ends up in the trash.  I’m proud of what I’ve done but know that there is always room for improvement.

I recently had a landmark day concerning my recycling.  I took my stack of newspapers and cardboard to the recycling center about 5 miles from the house.  (I bagged up plastic bottles, too, but don’t have enough of those or cans to recycle at this time.)  Then I went to a nearby grocery store that is collecting old Christmas lights.  (Copper is very much in demand these days.)  I had already decided that this was the last year for my lights, and then heard about this program.

I then went in search of the nearby UPS store to turn in the packing peanuts that had protected some of my Christmas presents. This proved a bit difficult because my iPhone map took me to a bank (?).  When I inquired inside, I was told that it was a UPS pickup point, thus the link on my map, and I was then directed to a UPS store located a mile farther down the road.  They cheerfully accepted my peanuts.

The crowning achievement of my Super-Recycling day was at Office Depot where I turned in a box (previously purchased from them) containing my recently deceased 15” TV/VCR plus some old networking equipment.  Office Depot has an impressive recycling program where for a nominal fee, one can buy a small, medium, or large box, then any technology that will fit in the box can be returned to the store where they will ship it to a technology recycling center.  This is a handy way to dispose of old technology, especially when you’re in the process of moving or cleaning out that closet at the end of the hall.

There are many other ways to recycle.  Donating old clothes and no-longer-used household items to local missions is just one.  Most auto garages recycle old engine oil and car batteries.  Old cell phones can be recycled or donated to Battered Women’s shelters where they can be used as 911-only phones. Grass clippings and leaves can be composted. For more information than you can possibly digest, Google “recycling” and see what comes up.

I sometimes wish recycling were more popular than it is, but it takes time.  It has grown tremendously in the last 10 years and will undoubtedly continue to grow as opportunities become more plentiful and attractive.  In the mean time, I will continue with my philosophy:  RECYCLE NOW! – at least sometimes, maybe more this year than last, it’s gotta catch on eventually….


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