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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Dangerous Liasions: Community participation in recycling and sustainability at Carleton

<nth ago, I had a conversation with a friend about recycling during which he told me that he had become disillusioned back in high school when he had seen one of the custodians dump the contents of both the trash bin and the recycling bin together into one massive can after school one day. We agreed that this is a huge disincentive to recycle: why waste time separating garbage if it’s all going to end up in one place? Two days ago, my friend again witnessed a custodian in the Carleton library combine the recycling bin with the trash. This sends a terrible message to anyone who tries to be conscious about the environment and the ways in which their actions affect it.

As someone who is not involved in any particular sustainability organization, but who tries to participate in college recycling and composting, I have become increasingly sensitive to our need to recycle and create an environmentally sustainable campus. However, I can recognize that it is important only in some abstract, principled way. I do believe that if every single person in the world were to participate in recycling (which may never be the case), it would be effective. However, I must confess that I am not entirely convinced that my personal actions matter within the grand scheme of our environmental aspirations, which for us is a college campus that includes everyone from hardcore participants who only buy goods packaged in environmentally sustainable materials, to half-hearted participants who air-dry their laundry but won’t give up long showers, to completely apathetic people, who either do not care or do not see any benefits to modifying their habits. No matter what category any student might fall under, I think the consequence of witnessing something like my friend did is, at the risk of sounding theatrical, disastrous. The apathetic people feel their actions are justified, the people who at least try to make a conscious effort are disappointed, and everybody’s frustrated. I judge that there are many other students who, like me, would love to see mass participation in our sustainability projects, but who feel that their efforts are generally without impact or result.

There are already a million reasons why people might not be particularly inclined to recycle. When they do, they had better be sure that they are not wasting their time. This is why we need to cater to the person who is the least willing to participate. This idea has largely been accomplished through our one-stream recycling system and the relative ease of composting (though despite numerous posters specifying exactly what can and cannot be composted, it can still be confusing and chaotic, particularly in the LDC). However, more important than the accessibility of recycling is the need for everyone to participate in its long chain-like process (which includes the people who dispose of recycled items, the people who collect them, the people who drive them and the people who physically recycle them). There needs to be incentive for all people to take action, because otherwise it flops. In light of this, sustainability groups on campus need to find a way to make the process desirable and accessible to everyone on campus—not just to students, but to staff as well.

This one witnessed instance of recycled items being dispensed with garbage may not be indicative of our entire recycling system. But, thinking about it, the frustration behind this trash anecdote appears everywhere in my daily interactions and experiences with peers. While it is invigorating to see somebody take the time to recycle, compost, or even just turn off all the lights in a room before leaving, watching others who don’t care so much inspires me to wonder why I should take the time to unplug my outlet each night only to have to plug it back in the morning if I know that my neighbor doesn’t do it. The whole idea of communal responsibility with regards to any type of sustainability action fails when people begin to question whether their efforts are pointless and futile. Knowing that a bottle that I throw into the recycling bin might always just end up with the regular trash, personally, makes me feel powerless: an emotion which curbs my motivation to even try to make a difference. If we can sharpen our system so that we can get everyone to participate and be aware of each person’s important role in the process, I think it will entice more people—all members of our community—to devote more time and energy to sustainability.

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