Recycling on other planets

Recycling is a fact of life in Onondaga County. Not only does it take energy (mental and physical) to recycle, but it probably takes constant PR pushes to make it work or, at least, deliver the illusion of success. OCRRA, a state authority, has kept up the steady drumbeat for almost 20 years and now I think most citizens of CNY respond pretty much like trained seals, even if we don’t always swish the right stuff into the right basket. It also helps that people generally have good (and quick) experiences during waste drop-off days at the dump, and that the recyclebins (this has become one word in the Syracuse area) are easy to obtain and replace.

How different things are in Houston…

Houston recycles just 2.6 percent of its total waste, according to a study this year by Waste News, a trade magazine… Landfill costs here are cheap. The city’s sprawling, no-zoning layout makes collection expensive, and there is little public support for the kind of effort it takes to sort glass, paper and plastics. And there appears to be even less for placing fees on excess trash. The city picks up garbage at some 340,000 households, and fewer than half have recycling bins. About 25,000 households are on the waiting list for the bins, but the city says it cannot afford more bins.

Those without the special bins must cart their recyclable garbage to one of just nine full-service drop-off depots in the city. But when Monica Pope, a locally renowned chef, approached a city-run recycling depot in her silver pick-up truck full of containers, she was turned away. “They said my truck was too full,” Ms. Pope recalled, laughing. “There are cultures that just don’t get it, and, unfortunately, Houston is one of them.”

Meanwhile, San Francisco, which has a recycling rate comparable to Onondaga County’s, wants to make recycling mandatory, with trash collecting companies acting as monitors. Understandably, even some green-minded people are balking at that idea. San Francisco apparently wants to be “zero-waste” by 2020 — but is that sustainable, or even attainable, if you have to mandate it? What really changes behavior in the long term?

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