Re: Refillable Bottles & home collection -Reply

Bill Carter (
Tue, 25 May 1999 12:02:57 -0500

Carol Slechta wrote:
"Why should we moralize about human behavior instead of seeing that
the technology and the systems accomodate the behavior without
causing ecological harm?"

Sometimes moralizing is in the eye of the beholder. Pat didn't say
anything about lazy consumers -- you did. Your own statements about
how industry needs to take responsibility for its products and simply
make re-use work somehow could be taken as moralizing just as well as
Pat's statements that consumers should pay the cost of their
convenience. I think most of us on this list would agree that workable
and just solutions require both producer and consumer accountability
beyond what is now required in the US.

Carol Slechta wrote:
"One thing you forget is that recycling is only one aspect of modern life
which needs to be handled."

You don't seem to be aware that you are preaching to the choir on this
list, which is at least largely made up of visionary people who have
thought long and hard "out of the box" about the broader questions of
sustainability and equity -- and who have also gone on to spend
hundreds of hours on advisory boards and planning groups as well as
doing the grunt work of actually handling hundreds of tons of materials,
pondering how it could be done better on a policy level and on an
operational level.

We have sympathized with hundreds of concerned citizens who want to
know why recycling and reuse aren't more effective and/or more
convenient. The short answer is that better systems are possible, but
they are not hanging on a tree waiting to be plucked -- they take time and
work to develop and implement and they always involve -- at best --
difficult compromises among many competing needs and preferences.
No system serving the public at large is going to please all the people, not
even all the conscientious, intelligent people.

The main difficulty in the general scheme you seem to be advocating --
an all-purpose single house-to-house collection of everything recyclable
and reusable for central processing, apparently together with
unrecoverable waste -- is cross-contamination and breakage of goods.
You would have to load and unload the recycle-all vehicle as carefully
as a moving van to get all manner of reusable items to a processing
center intact. Anyone who has managed collection fleets, as I have,
knows the kinds of costs that would be involved. I won't take up the
list's time & space reviewing all the permutations that have already been
experimented with such as wet/dry collection systems, except to say
that the recovery of a high fraction of intact reusable items only
succeeds where the items are delivered by the consumer to a resale
facility. The logic of deposits is that you are going back to the store at
some point and can take your deposits, along with your cloth bags or
market basket, without going out of your way. It's very little work once
the habit is formed.

Carol Slechta wrote:
"I did 31 hours of psychology with a 4.0 average and a GRE of 780 and I
can tell you, positive reinforcement is what works."

I agree whole-heartedly. Though my work with my autistic son, I have
experienced the miracle of watching the sparks of catching (and
engaging) him in doing something right -- in the midst of relentlessly
inconvenient behavior -- gradually grow in him ultimately to a blazing
interest and charming engagement in learning about the society around
him. We do have to strive to be infectious in our enthusiasm and hope,
and not in our frustration. On the other hand, as you also acknowledge,
there has to be some kind of restraint on wasteful behavior such as
"design for reuse/recycling" mandates, "pay as you throw" garbage
fees, and/or container and product deposits. In behavior management
terms, these should be designed and explained as "natural
consequences" of our behavior -- in this case, bearing the cost for the
waste we generate as producers and consumers.

PS. Having an MA in anthropology, I can confirm that the shell piles of
certain coastal Native Americans are called middens (it's a general
anthropological term for refuse heaps), and that they can be beneficial
(certainly for archeologists, as our contemporary landfills will also be
someday -- and as they already are for Bill Rathje).

I hesitate to endorse the banana-leaf solution for fast food packaging for
various reasons, e.g. just because something is biodegradable does not
make it sanitary and aesthetic as litter in every possible environment.

Modern waste challenges are much more severe than those of previous
cultures in large part because of our sheer numbers and the sheer
tonnage we handle, as well as the problematic materials. Even if we
eliminated all the toxic and otherwise problematic materials in current
use, traditional handling systems are not appealing options in settlements
of more than a few hundred people. We are dealing with the
overwhelming opportunity of abundant cheap energy (relative to all
previous human experience), which has fueled our explosive expansion
across the world's landscape and which tends to overwhelm traditional
wisdom's call for caution and restraint, presenting us, the human
community, with perhaps unprecedented moral challenges.

Please forgive my philosophical indulgence at the list's expense.

--Bill Carter