Earth Matters: Everybody must be on board with recycling effort

“What planet are you from?” I asked the surprised young lady as she approached me.

A day after moving into her new dorm room at Penn State Altoona, she had already generated a bag of trash. A friend walked with her, toting a similar sack of stuff intending to toss it all into the dumpster next to Oak Hall.

“We recycle here, you know?” I continue, gazing down at her bag full of both trash and recyclables. “Didn’t you get a recycling bin in your room?” I ask rhetorically, knowing full well every dorm room gets one.

“I thought we got two trash cans,” the new freshman countered.

After two days of struggling to get everyone on the same recycling page, my sarcastic fit worsened. “I guess you didn’t notice the recycling arrow on the blue container.”

She told me she was using it for recycling now, though the plastic bottle on top of the trash bag said otherwise. Turning a bit more conciliatory, I asked her to grab the bottles and put them in the recycling container. She cringed at the thought of digging the recyclables out of her trash bag.

To those that think that the young lady simply didn’t yet get the message, let’s consider a few things. Besides getting a recycling container, every new student gets a recycling guide (full of pictures, by the way, in case they don’t read everything). Additionally, this is not likely the first time in her life that she has been exposed to recycling. Three-quarters of people in this part of the country are part of curbside recycling programs. Most of the rest are within a few miles of drop-off recycling.

A similar situation exists in area businesses and the community at large. After sending a friendly reminder to an area business earlier this summer, the owner called me back to say he would have recycled if only he had known. He was surprised to find out that recycling was required. “When was this law passed?” he inquired.

“Twenty-four years ago,” I stated, matter-of-factly.

Some other recent experiences prove that the recycling memo is not the only one some folks have missed. As I flattened cardboard and helped explain our local recycling program to new students and their parents, an SUV appeared next to the recycling and waste station. Being a warm and humid afternoon, the father/driver let the engine run to take advantage of the air conditioning. Five minutes turned to 10. When I came back from the dorm next door 20 minutes later, he was still sitting there, engine running and air conditioner blowing.

Even if you are a global warming doubter, it seems impossible that any American could be oblivious to the economic, energy and other air pollution problems caused by running an internal combustion engine unceasingly. It seems even more incomprehensible when the gas-guzzler isn’t even moving and an air conditioned building is 10 steps away.

The good news is that these folks were in the minority. Most students and almost all their parents were happy to hear that we had a recycling program. Yet despite that good news, the minority remains a sizable one, proving once again, we still have a way to go.

John Frederick (jfrederick@ ircenvironment.org) works in the local recycling office (www.ircenvironment.org) and writes about environmental issues every other week in the Mirror.