So you finished your lunch and are knocking back the last of whatever you drink from a can and you have the best of intentions. Planing your return to wherever, you eyeball the place where you will bus your tray. You see the segregated bins and you see the universal recycling symbol. You are about to save the planet single handedly. You swan up to the bins you tip your garbage into the garbage and then smugly drop that precious metal into the hole marked recycling. There! The world is a better place. Isn’t it?
I was at my local burrito place recently. The lunch rush was slowing. So, the staff were getting a chance to do chores instead of serving customers. I watched one of them as she changed out the full liner bags in the segregated bins for new, clean ones. The bags were identical. “So,” I said to her, “The bags are all the same and you can’t tell them apart. I guess the recycling just goes in with the rest of the trash.” She was a good minion at that point. She just gave me a guilty grin.
The reason that business pretends to recycle is simple. The appearance of recycling is good public relations. Therefore the segregated bins and green recycling logo. However actual recycling is costly. Therefore all the bags go indistinguishably into the same dumpster.
In truth I basically knew that this was an ubiquitous practice. I have almost never seen segregated bins where the contents were segregated. There is usually a slurry of waste and recycling in each compartment. If you are looking into such a bin you are probably looking into landfill.
There are considerable arguments about the cost benefit ratio of recycling. However I am not so much concerned about that debate here. What is concerning me is fraud. When a business implies that it recycles, it does so for profit. The pretense is there to encourage custom. “Look! We are a green business. Spend your money here not at those other earth-hating businesses.” The implied recycling is a business cost that customers are encouraged, by green M.C. Escher arrows, to pay for. If they do not get the recycling they buy into then I think that deceit is fraud.
The importance of environmental issues is right up there with the most basic human needs for air, water, food and shelter. And yet a very great deal of the response to this growing crisis is nothing but cynical opportunism and pantomime. In the case of businesses pretending to recycle when they do not, we need a piece of case law that sets a precedent that this is fraud. Otherwise all that segregated bin is doing is making a fool of you and your good intentions.