In most places in the US, trash collection means putting our trash out to the curb in two containers. We call one of them recycling.
Some municipalities don’t offer curbside recycling. Some require three containers to keep food waste separate from other trash. Basically, that amounts to a return to the way we did trash collection 60 years ago.
I grew up in the late 1950s. My mother carefully wrapped the garbage (food wastes) in newspapers every night. I or one of my sibs put it in the stinky garbage can by the garage. A company emptied it every week.
We put trash (bottles, cans, broken toys, and the like) in a different can. A different company took it. We didn’t throw out empty pop bottles. We had to pay a deposit on them, so we returned them to the store. As for wastepaper, it was my job to burn it and watch over it in an incinerator my dad built.
I suppose people did the same things all over the country. In 1957, however, Los Angeles banned backyard incineration. So its citizens had to deal with three different collections. In 1961, Sam Yorty became mayor of Los Angeles. As part of his campaign, he promised to eliminate the necessity of separating trash.
When he became mayor, people could put everything in one trash can. One company collected it and dumped it in canyons not considered useful for anything else.
I grew up in Ohio, but soon enough Yorty’s idea spread throughout the country. By the middle of the 1960s, my hometown banned backyard incineration. We put all the garbage, trash, and paper into one container. It felt weird. And it turned out to be a costly convenience.
Trash collection and the environment
The old garbage dumps had started to evolve into modern sanitary landfills. Now that they had to receive garbage, they stunk and attracted vermin. Civil engineers advocated compacting trash and covering it with soil at the end of every day.
With the passage of the Solid Waste Disposal Act of 1965, the federal government got involved with waste management for the first time.
Ironically, the environmental movement started at about the same time as the convenience of commingled trash became the rule. The first Earth Day happened in 1970. The whole country was abuzz with conversations about pollution, food safety, population control, and the coming ice age.
(That’s right. Real climate scientists had become aware of the danger of global warming. Unfortunately, too many Earth Day “experts” got spooked by a short-term cooling trend.)
Here and there, activists raised the issue of recycling. For the most part, though, hardly anyone considered the environmental impact of rampant consumerism and the new waste management practices.
Every advancement in sanitary landfills has resulted in new problems, from leachate to methane emission. Modern landfills require an impermeable liner, a leachate collection system, and flaring off accumulated methane. They cost much more to operate than the old dumps. What’s more, once they close, they continue to need expensive maintenance long after they close.
If we hadn’t stopped separating wet garbage from the rest of our trash, we could compost it. Dry trash wouldn’t require such elaborate and undependable environmental safeguards.
The cost of convenience for recycling
The baneful influence of Sam Yorty’s bright idea hampers recycling efforts to this day. If households had still had to separate trash on Earth Day, the thought of separating recyclables would not have seemed an unreasonable imposition. Instead, people would have merely seen it as a different way of sorting.
As it is, the bulk of what we put in our landfills is either compostable or recyclable. Paper waste is both. It’s hard to get people to sort recyclables into a single container––and do it correctly.
Single-stream recycling requires expensive material recovery facilities. We used to enjoy the convenience of shipping recyclables off to China for further processing. Unfortunately, many of our MRFs produce bales of what is supposedly paper, plastic or metals with a contamination rate of as high as 25%.
China finally got fed up. Because we have relied on China for so long, we have a shortage of American companies to buy recyclables. MRFs can’t make a profit anymore.
Municipalities that operate recycling drop-off centers usually require patrons to put different materials in separate bins. Source separation at the curbside would require special containers and more complicated trucks. It would also greatly reduce both contamination and the cost of sorting everything with expensive machinery.
But by now, too many of us think it’s too inconvenient.