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That Tiny Blue Box for Recycling

Austin seems to be a city that values things green such as the trees and big blue-green balls like the earth. So why is Austin recycling behind the times?

First, the bins are kinda tiny. It is fine for maybe the average person, but larger families or home offices fill that bin in 2 days. There is not even an option to pay for a garbage cart sized recycling bin. Nope, the solution is just that you have to make space for extra bins and haul them out to the curb.

Second, to encourage the largest number of people to recycle it seems best to make it as easy as possible. Instead of quoting a bunch of studies in human behavior, I’m just going to say: as you make things more and more tedious and difficult, more people will just not participate.

The main pain is for cardboard boxes: 1) flatten the corrugated cardboard 2) arrange it into 2 feet by 2 feet (either fold or cut the cardboard) 3) tie it into groups with string or twine. Ok. So. Basically every time I want to throw away a box, I have to get my yardstick, scissors, and spare twine out. I don’t have spare twine. And I eternally loose my measuring tape. I can imagine that this discourages a few recycling fence sitters to save themselves the trouble and throw the stupid box in the trash can.

Now there might be some confusion about the guidelines. From talking to people in different areas of the city, apparently the guidelines are enforced in some neighborhoods and not others. The city doesn't have different zones, its just basically the personality of the guy that picks up your garbage. So if you are lucky enough to have a garbage person that doesn't care, you are good to go. But if they retire or you move, you might end up with someone that strictly follows the rules.

Anyway, here is a picture from the city that shows proper recycling with the little blue bin and cardboard wrapped in twine, which demonstrates the ridiculous neatness of the trash:

Ok, now to suggest a solution. LA has a nice one in place. I don’t really like LA and was disappointed to hear that they have something greener, but I can suck it up and admit that the smog hole of the earth has a better recyling process than we do.

Instead of having to sort & wash all the bottles and origami your cardboard, they just throw all the recyclables into a blue trash cart, just like your normal trash cart but blue, with wheels and all, so you have the added bonus of not breaking your back lifting multiple tiny but heavy bins to the curb.

To test the blue cart theory, I did an informal poll. Namely, I asked my two friends that only occasionally recycle, Dave and Will, about the cart approach to recycling. They both agreed they would recycle more if they got to throw everything into one place, instead of having to do some crazy grade school diorama like project involving twine.

To separate the recyclables, we could hire homeless people. One of the problems with being homeless is that it’s pretty hard to get a job. If you show up to an interview and haven’t showered in a few days and your address is under some bridge or wherever, it’s surprisingly hard to get a job. Also, I will admit I had a hard time getting to work on time when I worked in the tech industry, so it doesn’t surprise me that people that don’t have access to reliable transportation, and are frequently dealing with some type of chemical addiction, have a difficult time as well. Working to separate out recyclables could be a good gateway job because it would not require regular hours. Homeless people could come in stinking like hell and work for a few hours.

Now one problem is pay. Not all homeless are drug users, but it is safe to say that a large percentage are struggling with some form of addiction. My friend says that giving people that are overcoming drug addicitions a big wad of cash is really stupid. They actually said some fancy psycho babble crap about enabling and that I would be an enabler, but their tone was "that is really stupid". So instead of cash, we could give them housing or food credits. They could have something to eat, take a shower, and/or sleep somewhere clean & comfortable at the recycling centers.

Anyway that is my plan. I think the plan is pretty good… possibly the best plan ever. But its 4am. Everything sounds good at 4am. Currently the second best plan ever was the plan I had an hour ago, which was to turn the moon into cheese. Mostly because A: cheese is pretty good and B: I would like a lot of it.


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My neighborhood (Chestnut Hill in central East Austin) has been participating in a City recyclying pilot program. About two years ago, they took away our little blue bins and replaced them with the medium-size garbage cans--the gray ones. Except our new cans have blue lids, and we use them for recycling. You just throw all your recyclables in, although the City has asked that newspapers be in grocery bags or tied into bundles. The trade-off is that the City picks up recycling in our neighborhoood only every other week.

I think the pilot program has been a big success. The new cans are much bigger than the blue bins, and hold far more than twice as much recyclying. Better yet, they have lids, so you can put your recyclying out whenever and not worry about the newspaper getting rained on. (I think I remember when that used to happen . . . )

Even bigger advantages to this system include reduced traffic and air polllution, and probably somewhat less staff. (Ideally, these cuts will be achieved through attrition or transfer to other city departments, not lay offs.) After the initial investment in the bigger cans (and possibly modifications to the recycling trucks), this program should cost considerably less.

For the record, I've rarely followed the guidelines for recycling cardboard. I make a C+ effort to break it down to a manageable size, then I just stick it in the bin. They always take it.

When the pilot program started, we received a notice saying it would last about a year. After about a year, I did get a phone call from the City asking for my opinion of the program. But that's the last I've heard; two years later (at least), we're still on the every-other-week, great-big-recycling-cans program, but I don't think it has spread to other neighborhoods. Might be worth a call to the City to find out whazzup.