Kevin McKeever: Redemption for some of our recycling woes
My first official job in the Connecticut workforce dealt with profiling and segregation.
I spent much of the summer of my 16th year in the dank underground of a Stamford supermarket, determining whether the bottles and cans returned for a nickel deposit really came from our store. Those that didn’t were pitched in the trash; those that did were separated by material and color then stacked or bagged for recycling pickup.
Nothing felt physically good about this work. Certainly not the sticky beverage residue that inevitably coated my skin and clothes or the stench of stale beer that remained in my nasal membranes for hours past quitting time. However, it was somewhat psychologically satisfying. I was on the ground (actually, basement) floor of a burgeoning environmental and financial movement. Connecticut’s “bottle bill” had been in place only a few years in 1984 and already a difference could be seen. Fewer empties lined our state’s roadsides as did more garbage-bag-toting fortune seekers.
But those were simpler times. A nickel was a nickel then, meaning it was worth nearly three cents. That could still buy you a piece of gum — pun-tasic comic and fortune included if it was Bazooka. Residential curbside recycling? Bah, twice-a-week trash pickup — that was the suburban utopia we lived in back then.
These memories recently came pouring over me, along with a familiar sticky residue and stale stench. This week — for the first time in ages — I returned my empties to the market to collect the deposit rather than conveniently toss them into our city-issued single-stream recycling toter at home.
Was I that desperate for the nickels? Well, not as desperate as the city and our state.
You’ve probably read or heard about the crash of the recycling materials market. Where U.S. municipalities once made modest profits selling the tons of paper, plastic, glass, metal and cardboard it collected, most are now having to pay others to haul it away — sometimes to the landfills recycling was supposed to help us avoid. Stamford, for example, went from making $95,000 in recycling revenue in the 2016-17 fiscal year to spending $700,000 the next to get rid of the stuff.
The blame for the collapse is international and domestic. China, the biggest buyer of U.S. recyclables, no longer takes most of our discards. This, they say, is because our shipments were regularly contaminated with unacceptable amounts of food waste, foam cups and other junk and gunk that made recycling impossible. Seems single-stream recycling made Americans very good at putting things into a recycling bin, just not necessarily the things that could be recycled.
So rather than make my city — and, hence, you fellow taxpayers — cough up the cash, I figured it would be/save more green by using the bottle and can redemption machines at the grocery. Doing so, theoretically, keeping these materials separate and “clean” for recycling rather than chance them mingling with a greasy pizza box or other yuck that inevitable finds its way into the municipal household pickup.
Also, did you know that of the 10 states that have bottle deposit laws, Connecticut ranks dead last in consumer redemption at around 50 percent? Single-stream recycling has made us lazy, sloppy spendthrifts! Besides every unclaimed nickel goes straight into the state’s coffers, and what’s Hartford going to do with it? Most likely spend it on highway toll gantries that will take more of our money. I plan to drink and redeem enough to pay all my future EZ Pass bills; my insurance will pay for the new liver.
Back to that summer, you’ll be happy to know I did such a good job of keeping the plastic away from the glass and the browns away from the greens that I was eventually moved out of the basement. My next task required skills to reign in chaos and promote consumer/business harmony through gathering and unifying. I rounded up abandoned shopping carts from the parking lot.
Stamford native and resident Kevin McKeever, whose nationally award-winning column appears here every other Friday, is a freelance writer for hire. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.