10 November 2011

Sustainable Living Isn't Just for Treehuggers

The other day, I was asked to give a presentation about proper recycling in the office. My audience consisted of small business entrepreneurs and professional freelancers. Everyone held a college undergraduate degree, and it’s likely many of them also had a master’s degree. The reason I was asked to give a presentation is not because I work in the environmental industry, but because I’m passionate about recycling and being resourceful.

Recently, I heard someone use the word “eco-nerd” to refer to himself. He got excited that the Asian restaurant we ate at had real, non-disposable chopsticks. And on top of bringing re-usable bags to the grocery store, he kept track of the bulk item identification numbers on his iPhone to save paper and ink, by avoiding having to print out the adhesive labels.

My particular eco-nerdiness comes from my partiality to minimizing the use of plastic in my life. I will wash and re-use the few plastic bags that make it through the front door of my house. I’m on about my 12th use of a microwave and dishwasher safe to-go container that I keep taking back to a restaurant I frequent often for lunch, since it’s down the street from my office. Fortunately, they allow me to keep bringing it back, and they even offer me a 50-cent discount for my environmental consciousness.

When you’re as excited about something, as I am about reducing the amount of waste I produce as a human, it’s easy to forget that not everyone else feels the same way. Doesn’t everyone get giddy about recycling, reusing, and maybe not even using it in the first place? I discovered that the answer was no. I had also assumed that fellow college-educated, intelligent, liberal-minded, business-savvy people would be as ecologically enthusiastic as I was. But my assumption was wrong. At least in the office place.

My passion for recycling became apparent at work because I was constantly commenting on how the recycling wasn’t properly being done – sometimes, it wasn’t even done at all. The recycling bins are about ten steps from the kitchen and down a half flight of stairs. It’s easier just to throw the can or container into the trashcan next to the kitchen sink. But it’s also not that difficult to take the extra 30-45 seconds to make the short trip to the bins. (Plus, it’s a good stretching exercise for most of us who sit in a chair 6-8 hours a day.)

The presentation I gave was quite simple. I showed how only the following items are acceptable for the blue “clean paper” bin: office paper, envelopes, cardboard, cardstock, catalogs, magazines, newspaper and junk mail. The following items are acceptable for the plastic, glass, and aluminum “commingled” bin: cleaned and/or rinsed glass bottles and jars, plastics (#1 though #7), and aluminum and steel cans. This is pretty much the standard for recycling most everywhere in Austin.

I got all kinds of interesting questions during the presentation. How do you know if it’s recyclable? (Look for the little number inside a triangle, usually at the bottom of the container.) Why do I have to remove the lids and caps? (Because they are made of different material that doesn’t recycle well, or at all in some cases, plus it jams the recycling machines.) Why can’t I just put the empty beer bottles in the cardboard holder and put them in the recycler that way? (Because the recycling people ask us to separate paper and glass.) Why can’t the recycling people sort it out for me? (They ask us to do things a certain way for a reason, the same way we ask our clients to present information to us in a particular way. It makes the whole process more efficient.) The recycling bins are too out of the way. (Do I really have to answer to that?)

I removed styrofoam, plastic bags, dirty pizza boxes, and glass bottles from the paper bin. I removed paper, soiled plastic containers, bottles still filled with (now rancid) liquid beverage, and outright garbage from the commingled bin. After the presentation, I showed a funny home video I made about the things I do at home to be more resourceful – in hopes of adding a bit of humor to my schoolmarm lesson about saving the earth.

In the end, I don’t know if I was able to change anyone’s mind, or even slightly inspire someone to think about how much unnecessary waste we produce in society. Maybe everyone just went back to their desks and promptly forgot everything I said. But I did walk away with one thought – I will continue being an “eco-nerd” for the rest of my life. I figure, if I keep at it, maybe it will catch on. After all, trendsetters don’t wait for everyone else to do the same.

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