Mundane Moral Dilemmas: Is there a moral benefit to recycling?

I'm beginning a new series: Mundane Moral Dilemmas.  Every so often, something so routine, so, well, mundane, will nag at me, and usually behind the aggreviation is something deeper.  Let's explore them, shall we?


We recently moved, and when I set up our trash and recycling service, I was surprised to learn that our new area does not separate waste.  Everything that is not used goes into one container, and a single stream sorting service determines what is resuseable and what is garbage.


I told Dan the news, and he said wryly, "I guess they're not even trying to bother fooling us with how much actually goes into the landfill."


His cynicism hit me more than I would have liked to admit.  Sure, I can hope that the super advanced trash collection technology catches much of what we miss, and efficiently jettisons what we think is worth saving, but I suspect that Dan may be right.  In short, is recycling more about guilt alleviation or planet salvation?


We all know by now the "three Rs": first reduce, then reuse, then recycle.  Can we go without?  If we must have that glass bottled kombucha, can we reuse the glass later for our water bottle?  Can we recycle the glass container as a last resort?  We can feel virtuous when we see our recycling bins overflowing and our trash cans barely used, but the thinking lately has shifted.  Maybe we need a different barometer.


One the one hand, automated trash collection keeps us honest.  We see exactly how much waste we produce.  We hope, we pray that some of it , parts of it, can have another life.  Yet whether that amount is 90 percent or nine percent, we don't know.  Hopefully we strive to put out less and less rather than throw up our hands in confusion and defeat.


On the other hand, recycling give us something to do.  Every day, we remember the environment, the landfills, the thinning forests, as we choose between breaking down our cardboard box into plastic and wrappers or tossing it together into the waste basket.  A flicker of judgment usually passes upon someone who chooses the latter, which is not necessarily a bad thing.  Recycling works to form our collective conscious, to remind us again and again that individual actions do matter.  The focus is not China's pollution or cheap gas prices but agency: we have some.


I will admit: I like not having two cans taking up space in our kitchen.  But we have one large bin now, not two, and we are taking a full load to the curb each Wednesday; we cannot skip weeks like we did with our other service.  I suppose we could say that this automated trash collection experiment raises a different kind of awareness, one that I am not sure paints me as any better of an environmental steward.

Emily Rowell Brown