The View from the Dumpster—No players, no Game
As a resident, you are familiar with the recycling program in your community, which for most folks means you know to put the paper in one bin, and plastic, glass, and metal in the other; that, and you know the pickup day. And every community in the country has different rules, different materials they accept, and if the vendor changes, the rules may change. So, you have to keep track of putting the tall glass jar with a lid in the purple bin on Tuesday, and if you don’t have the lid, it goes in the blue bin on Wednesday. Soda bottles are in the green bin, unless they are diet sodas which have to be handled separately via a special pickup, because nobody wants to touch that toxic residue. Then there’s the paper bin, I know that the pizza box is cardboard, and likely so was the pizza, but the bits of cheese that you missed are a problem. Oh, my bad; that was frozen pizza. That box you can put in with the paper. Do whatever you want with flavorless Frisbee that you just baked. Yes, I understand that paint can is steel, but there’s a different number you have to call for that. Really, that vacuum cleaner doesn’t fit in the bin. Take it down the street, and drop it in a clothing recycling bin.
It’s tough enough for residential recycling where the volume is relatively low, but in the world of commercial and industrial recycling, where volumes are staggering, it can become a nightmare and in many cases, just an absolute failure. If we want to have any success in recycling or eliminating waste, that commercial sector is critical. The bulk of recyclates are under their control. Residential recycling is a minor portion of the whole scenario, the proverbial drop in the bucket.
One of the big issues these days is food waste recycling. There have been a number of approaches to this problem. The most common one that I have seen at a number of grocery store locations is the specialized dumpster for handling vegetative matter and bread. These are two yard dumpsters with three lids and locks, which are designed to deal with a portion of food waste. Certainly from initial appearances, this is a great idea. But, here’s what happens.
Someone at corporate makes the bold decision that they have to recycle. Their reasoning behind this is in part to reduce costs, but predominately is a way to appease the community where they operate, and to satisfy a mandate from their stockholders: a mandate that likely says nothing more than, “Make us look good." And that mandate trickles down (and we all know how well that works) through a whole series of stakeholders, and ultimately arrives at the store. And the store looks at their low man, and tells them to take care of it. These are the same stores where a year ago I found posters about recycling paper and cardboard in their dumpster, cases of them right next to the cardboard and the eggs and milk. The moment had expired, and so had the impetus to do what they were expected to do. Back to business as usual, ignoring the fact that they had a baler inside the store to deal with the paper and cardboard.
And now, because of a damn good sales rep from the vendor providing recycling pickup, they have a new program. A program not tailored for the store and its personnel, but tailored for the vendor, who of course is charging for the service. The basics of the program is the store gets the new special dumpsters. They can now recycle, they can now tell everyone that they are recycling, and the guy who was having difficulty pushing the mop across the floor—Well now, he’s a recycler. There is a failure here to address all of a store’s needs. There’s a failure to ensure that all store personnel understand what’s happening. And ultimately, as in the case of one that I saw on Wednesday, the vendor puts a red tag on the bin because it’s full of trash. Since these are locked bins, it’s obvious that it was store personnel who put the unacceptable items in the bin. These bins require that only food goes in; no wrappers, no plastic, and no packaging,only vegetative matter, and in one case, vegetative matter and bread. I’ve actually watched store employees standing outside with a cart full of boxes, opening bags and dumping the contents, then having to take the residue back inside to put it into their compactor. But, they’re recycling. When the volume gets overwhelming or the staff doesn’t show up for work, this project is low priority. That’s why you can check their dumpsters and find produce trim, bagged vegetables, and cases of various vegetables. The little bit they put into the special container should suffice to keep everyone happy.
And in reality, it’s just a little bit. Full or empty doesn’t really matter to the vendor; the charge to pickup is the same. But if you look at it logically, a store that has two eight-yard containers picked up three times per week, or 48 yards really can’t be adequately served by a two-yard container. But it certainly feels good to know all of this recycling is happening. The thinking is headed in the right direction, but unless that program matches up to the needs of the store, and the capabilities of the store, it’s nothing more than a nuisance to satisfy corporate greenwashing. Without the involvement of the staff and crew responsible, it will not work. Without a commitment on everybody’s part to do what is necessary, this is a feeble, piecemeal effort.
In order for commercial recycling programs to work, everybody has to be involved, understand why they are involved, understand their roles, it has to be realistic to meet realistic goals, and it can’t be window dressing or greenwashing. All of these programs have to have commitment and ownership, and everybody involved has to benefit.
If you can’t get all of your players suited up and on the field, you can’t have a game.