Garbage Chic

THE PEOPLE WHO ARE THE MOST REALISTIC ABOUT the nation's solid waste problems are those who have to smell them every day. There must be something about the odor of garbage piled up higher than your nose that makes you want to deal with it. Most of the rest of America seems content with the simplistic concepts about the trash it mindlessly tosses away. A recent news item about recycling helps illustrate that point.

A couple of weeks ago, USA Today published an entertaining, but misleading, article entitled, “Recycling levels begin to droop.” The story noted that fewer Americans are recycling, the recyclables collection percentage is flat, communities' enthusiasm for recycling is waning, and the recycling rates for beverage cans and bottles is far less than it was a decade ago.

Citing further evidence of recycling's decline, the reporter says that many states already have or will miss their recycling targets. Finally, as if to give the reader the perspective they need to make sense of the loosely connected set of facts, the reporter dredges up Mobro, the garbage barge whose fateful journey in 1987 unfortunately became a defining moment in solid waste history.

Waste industry professionals always knew that Mobro was nothing more than a sad little incident that grabbed a few headlines — a sound bite that became what many Americans, including journalists, know about the complex job of collecting, processing, transporting and disposing solid waste.

The USA Today story credits Mobro with making Americans feel guilty about the garbage problem and driving them to recycle as penitence for their sins. Recycling then became a chic religion, whose cause is right, if not divinely inspired. The story then uses Mobro again to explain why interest in recycling is faltering — this time because Mobro finally has sailed off into the sunset of our collective memories and, as a result, Americans don't think about garbage anymore.

After finishing this story, its readers will know very little about the complex set of factors that always will affect recycling rates — economics, markets, politics, for example. What they might remember, though, is that recycling isn't working, and that Mobro probably has something to do with it. Chalk one up for solid journalism.

I did learn one thing from the article, though. Apparently, more people recycle than vote. Considering that, maybe we should set up voting machines on recycling trucks and at recycling centers. That way, after we recycle, the only thing we have to feel guilty about is who we elected.

The author is the editorial director of Waste Age