Full Recycle Bins According to a recent newspaper article, the progressive boomtown of San Jose, California reports that the percentage of residents that recycle in the city is decreasing and contamination of collected materials is increasing.

At the municipal level, the city has been enforcing fines against its contractors for failing to meet contract goals and is considering fining residents for not following residential guidelines. The city is also considering an education program for residents about proper procedures.

The Recycling Trend

Interest and participation in recycling and personal conservation efforts has waxed and waned with the times. During the Depression, thrift and reuse were core values for any family just hoping to get by. During World War II, scrap drives to help the war effort were commonplace all across America. Families not only practiced patriotism but developed a conservation mentality at the same time. In the prosperous post-war period, thrifty habits like recycling and reuse were largely lost as a throw-away mentality took over. Then, with the environmental movement that began in the early 1970s, recycling again became part of our collective consciousness. Many communities developed programs to collect materials and cars to keep them out of landfills and re-purpose them as useful raw materials.

At the personal level, while a great many residents care about the environment and want to do their part, recycling does takes some effort and can result in a loss of convenience. For example, it is easier to throw away a carton of spoiled milk and forget about it than it is to rinse it out and recycle it. The same goes for other common items such as metal cans, cardboard boxes, plastic bottles and junk mail.

Some commonly collected materials may be unacceptable if damaged or contaminated. The most common example of this is the greasy pizza box, since food residue will allow the growth of bacteria during processing and ruin the final product. That is why guidelines are published for individuals and businesses.

Consumer Education

Hopefully, any consumer education program will include not just the “what” and “how” of preparing and sorting materials, but also the “why” of developing a conservation mentality for the long term. This way, more of those milk cartons will end up in the recycling bin because more people will think it important enough to put in the minimal time and effort to do so.

Environmental issues such as population growth, deforestation, pollution and climate change are in the news every day. These problems are the combined result of our individual choices. As we live our daily lives these problems can seem overwhelming and beyond our control. Fortunately, our individual attitudes and actions are totally within our control. Today, just as during World War II, people can educate themselves, recycle, conserve and reuse more, consume less and develop better habits. These individual efforts will add up to a cleaner, more sustainable future, with more of our waste put to good use and less of it clogging our streets and landfills.