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Earth Day trash talk

April 22, 2010

I thought I’d use Earth Day as an opportunity to discuss the detritus collection system here in Scottsbluff. (I meant to keep the discussion light, but when I started writing, my pessimistic streak came out. Sorry.)

The dumpsters

When we moved here, I saw these ugly, rusting dumpsters in the alley behind my house and figured they belonged to the apartments across the alley:

Come to find out, nope. Here in my neighborhood in Scottsbluff, the city provides these dumpsters as part of the municipal trash collection service.

I pay $38.07 every two months, and I can put AS MUCH TRASH AS I WANT in those dumpsters.

If you are trying to encourage recycling, this is the WRONG way to go. There is no increased cost for increased trash, so no one bothers to recycle anything. Oodles of recyclable cardboard gets tossed in there. And glass. And tin cans. I’ve even seen aluminum cans discarded there, which surprises me because you can get money for recycling aluminum.

There are some things that aren’t supposed to go in those dumpsters: landscape waste, carpeting, bulky construction waste like concrete and wood. But no one ever checks. How could they? The dumpsters are basically public. Anyone can throw anything in there, and no one would know who did it. I’ve seen plenty of verboten waste in there.

Some of the dumpsters in my alley are in in poor repair. The lids don’t sit straight, or people are too lazy to close the lids, so water gets in and the bottoms are rusting out. Also, I refuse to take out the trash at night. I’ve seen stray cats climb into those things via the wonky lids, and who knows what else might be hiding in there. With the the rusting holes in the bottom, the open lids, the foraging critters, and the wind, a good amount of trash winds up blowing around the neighborhood.

I recall hearing that the city was phasing the dumpsters out. Good! But I think the change may be a little bumpy, since people are used to the ease of the dumpsters.

The recycling trailers

The last place I lived (Champaign, Illinois), recycling was a breeze. You just threw everything into a curbside container that was picked up each week. No need to separate anything. All you had to do was rinse out the containers and remove the caps, and you were done. Newspapers, magazines, office paper, cardboard, junk mail, cans, bottles, ANY type of plastic: they collected everything except green glass.

Scottsbluff is another story.

Not only do you have to rinse tin/steel cans, but you have to remove the label and cut out the bottom of the can, too (except if it has a rounded bottom). I am a little accident prone when it comes to sharp, metal can edges, so I use one of those “smooth edge” can openers. Those can openers don’t really work on the bottom of cans. It often mangles the metal instead of cutting it. More sharp edges . . . not good.

The only types of plastic that are accepted are #1 and #2, and the #2 plastic has to be divided by clear and solid.

I don’t even want to get started on the paper recycling. If you have SEVEN categories for paper product recycling, that is about four categories too many, in my opinion. Computer paper, office paper, magazines, corrugated cardboard, newspaper, trash paper, shredded paper.

I thought I remembered reading an article in the paper that green glass was being accepted for recycling here, but when I asked at city hall, the response was that they don’t accept green glass.

It’s very nice that there are several all-hours recycling trailers around town. I do appreciate those!

The problem is, sometimes some of the individual compartments are full. Also, it’s still a pain in the keister to have to separate things into so many categories. If you forget what goes into which category, the signs on the bins aren’t always helpful, as many of them have worn to the point of illegibility. And I think there are only three different bins for the seven types of paper (newspaper, “trash paper”, and magazines), plus sometimes another bin for cardboard (at least one of the locations, at the hospital, doesn’t have cardboard recycling). Where does the other stuff go?

If you want curbside recycling, you have to pay an extra $3 per month, and you STILL have to separate out all the trash, AND put each category in a separate bag, because they just basically drive one of those recycling trailers around the neighborhood.

If you want to get recycle landscape waste into “black gold” (compost), you have to pay by the load at the tree dump, or you have to pay $85.60 for a landscape waste container. (So, guess what happens to a lot of landscape waste . . . dumpster time!!)

It’s not an easy problem to solve

I’ll come right out and say it: Americans are trashy. We are a throwaway society, fixated on convenience, with a planned obsolescence problem. Cheap, not durable or repairable, is considered best. We generate enormous amounts of trash and don’t pay the full price for disposing of it.

If you try to limit the amount of trash by charging on a volume basis, you get an increase in illegal dumping. If I understand correctly, other than aluminum, most recycling programs don’t pay for themselves.

Scottsbluff is not the only place with problems by far. In Ames, Iowa, (where I once lived) there was a state law requiring deposit on some beverage cans and bottles to encourage recycling. I hated the hassle of this program, and it also removed lucrative aluminum from curbside recycling programs, which is often what helps subsidize community recycling. Because Ames burned its trash to create energy in the municipal power plant, there was no incentive to recycle anything other than the beverage containers with deposits on them. (I learned at the Garbage Dreams screening at Midwest Theater that Gering is considering a similar trash-burning facility once the landfill is closed.) But Ames did have to start a voluntary glass recycling program, with bins located around the city, because if glass went through the incinerator, it created a slag buildup that was very expensive to remove. Although the trash all went to the same place, the city had opened trash collection up to the marketplace, with the result that several different trash collection companies would each drive their trucks down the street on different days. There were always cans out on the curb.

Even if you do find a “perfect” system for trash disposal, it’s tough to get people to change habits, unless there’s a cost involved. And if there’s a change in habits AND a cost involved, people get really cranky.

They say that the youth are our hope, and I would agree to that in principle, as they don’t have the bad habits ingrained in them yet. As an example, a post from Facebook today: “every time I go to throw something out, my daughter asks if it could be recycled”.

But, Earth Day has been around for 40 years (I remember the push for conservation and recycling in my grade school), and it seems that for every step forward, we take a step back.

We absolutely cannot keep doing what we are doing and expect to still live live long and prosper. I tend towards pessimism anyway, and the things I see people doing to our planet, our only home, make me lose all hope. I see us on a downward spiral to disaster.

Prove me wrong, people.

Copyright 2010 by Katie Bradshaw

One Comment leave one →
  1. April 22, 2010 11:18 am

    My sentiments exactly!

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