Reduce, reuse … whatever

If you’re from out of town, just in case you didn’t know, Portland Recycles!

If you’re from out of town, just in case you didn’t know, Portland Recycles!

Also, be aware that Portland Composts!

Don’t worry, you’ll quickly learn that the city you’re visiting performs these acts of environmental conscience when you see these messages proudly written on the side of countless bins awaiting curbside pickup.

But you won’t see such friendly declarations about waste removal. Portland Incinerates! Portland Litters! Portland Rapes the Ozone! Nope. These statements would be more fitting for the non-recycling lands of far-flung elsewhere from which visitors come to the Rose City and can feel, well, a bit overwhelming.

It’s the way Portlanders embrace recycling that can be off-putting. In my experience, there are two attitudes about recycling in the world: people who embrace recycling and all the environmental benefits it brings, and those who just don’t care either way.

I recycle everything I can because it’s really not that difficult. But when I moved to Portland from Louisiana six months ago, it was difficult.

You see, Louisiana rapes the ozone. It’s just something you get used to living there. Beer bottles, cardboard, tin cans. In the garbage they go.

And in the garbage they went during my first two weeks in Portland, because I was so familiar with the act. That is, until people angrily reminded me I’m a horrible person for throwing away my beer bottles and take-out boxes. I quickly learned my lesson.

But I actually grew up in Oregon—before moving briefly to Louisiana—meaning the methods of recycling were ingrained somewhere in my mind. Others who’ve lived their entire lives in a non-recycling culture aren’t as familiar. So go easy on them.

In other words, recycling is a subconscious act for most people: you get into a routine about where to dump a beer bottle, and then you just do it when it’s empty.

It highlights how challenging it is to consciously bring change to an area where the culture is firmly imbedded in throwing away anything and everything. People in places like Louisiana just don’t care about recycling, but it’s not with malicious intent. It’s something they’ve never done and they’re getting along fine, so why do it now?

It’s unfortunate, because wind currents have a tendency to shift pollution around for untold miles. So all that hard work Portlanders are putting into their recycling programs aren’t being done any favors by places with this attitude, like China.
China recently surpassed the United States as the world’s largest producer of household garbage, according to the New York Times.

As landfills near capacity, China has begun a sprawling program to build incinerators throughout the country. These incinerators “have become a growing source of toxic emissions, from dioxin to mercury, that can damage the body’s nervous system,” the New York Times states.

“And these pollutants … float on air currents across the Pacific to American shores,” it goes on to say, adding that studies at the University of Washington and Argonne National Laboratory show that one-sixth of all mercury deposits on North American lakes come from Asia, particularly China.

There’s really no practical reason that China couldn’t offer recycling programs to reduce its overwhelming amount of trash. It’s just something the country has never done, so why don’t they do it now?

As Zhong Rigang, chief engineer at a Chinese incinerator, said in the New York Times, “No one really cares.”

That’s the odd thing about recycling: it’s either embraced or ignored. There’s not much middle ground.