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Why Don't Bostonians Recycle More?

This environmentally friendly column is brought to you by West Roxbury Saves Energy, a community-based organization committed to spreading the word that individuals can make positive choices that save money as well as the planet.

 

To many of us, recycling seems to have become a way of life. We look around and see designated containers for plastic bottles and cans and paper everywhere, not to mention the ubiquitous big blue bins on our sidewalks on collection days, and we think, "Wow everyone's recycling!"

Consequently, it was surprising to see statistics recently that do not readily confirm this impression. In Boston, fewer than one in five pieces of household garbage finds its way into the recycling truck; last year the city recycled only 19% of its residential waste. This statistic is fairly shocking in a place that is, according to national standards, “one of the greenest cities in the country.”

Boston spends about $5 million per year on recycling programs, including one aimed specifically at increasing recycling at public housing projects and another that will include the public schools. In fact, when "single-stream" recycling was introduced three years ago, the city significantly increased its recycling rate. Boy, it must have been woefully low prior to that.

So why do you think we don’t recycle more of our household waste? While many other cities still have to separate their recycling items, we have it easy here in Boston. Our single-streaming allows us to toss everything together into that blue bin: plastic containers, newspapers, cardboard, glass, paper bags, cans, tin foil. (Well, not quite everything; please don’t put plastic bags in your recycling bin! They get caught in the equipment at the recycling center. Take your plastic bags to the grocery store and put in the appropriate bin there.)

Probably lots of reasons factor in to our low recycling rate. For one, unlike in other cities such as San Francisco, there is no potential cost to the individual who doesn’t comply with recycling regulations. No penalty is incurred in West Roxbury if I don’t recycle that cardboard box or don’t take the time to put my junk mail and catalogs and old phone books into the recycling bin rather than the trash bag. In San Francisco, a resident who ignores the option to recycle can be fined $100. This “pay as you throw” requirement has been crucial to San Francisco’s success (SF recycles 55 percent of its household waste), according to that city’s coordinator of the zero-waste program there. Maybe Boston needs to try this? You know what they say about money talking...

San Francisco also requires all residents to recycle their food scraps, a move that Cambridge plans to echo by expanding its food scrap program. The director of recycling in Cambridge believes this will increase their recycling rate from 40 to 60 percent. Again, maybe Boston needs to make this a part of our recycling program?

If you are someone who recycles half-heartedly or not at all, please consider taking this easy step to help our environment. See how little trash you can put out on your pickup day compared to how fully you can stuff that big blue bin. Our suggestion: keep small recycling containers in various rooms in your house or apartment to make it easier to toss in that junk mail or that Band-Aid wrapper or that toilet paper roll or that empty shampoo bottle. Then just empty those containers once a week the way you do your waste baskets — only empty them into your big recycling bin.

Every little bit helps. Really.

Recycling notes: Recycle your electronics on September 29 in Dorchester. Hazardous waste drop-off day in West Roxbury is November 17. Leaf and yard waste collection this fall runs October 15 through November 30. For further details, go to cityofboston.gov/recycle.

For more information about West Roxbury Saves Energy, please visit westroxburysavesenergy.org.

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