Julia L F Goldstein

How Are You Changing the World?

Snow Days

My neighborhood got seven inches of snow over two days this month, which is a lot for Seattle. Schools close, events get canceled, and garbage and recycling pickup doesn’t come. As I walk down the street, I can’t help but take a photo of my neighbor’s bins covered in snow. They are one of the few who set their bins out on the curb. The rest of us realized that there wasn’t much point to bringing them down to the street. We knew that the trucks wouldn’t be able to navigate the steep hills with all the snow and ice.

I think of February 2019, when I shoveled a total of 18 inches of snow off the driveway. The garbage trucks didn’t come for three weeks. By the time they arrived, so many of my neighbors’ bins were overflowing. Ours were not. I experienced a side benefit to producing relatively little waste. We can go for several weeks without a pickup.

Several weeks before the January snowstorms, I took a photo in front of another neighbor’s house. Their trash and recycling bins were stuffed so full that they wouldn’t close. I wanted to leave a note based on the “did you know” signs that I helped create for the co-working space where I have a desk.

  • DID YOU KNOW? Americans generate an average of 4.5 pounds of waste per person per day.
  • DID YOU KNOW? 50 million tons of compostable waste, mostly food waste, ended up in landfills in 2015.
  • DID YOU KNOW? Recycling rates for plastic have dropped from 9% in 2015 to 4.4% in 2018.

I didn’t leave a note. I don’t want to shame or alienate people or make enemies. But Americans throw out so much stuff. If people learned easy ways to reduce their waste footprint, would they do it? How can those of us who care about what happens to our trash and recyclables educate our friends and neighbors?

Based on conversations I’ve had, most people in the Seattle area want to create less waste. They like the idea of reducing the amount of disposable packaging they buy and want to recycle properly. Criticizing them when their efforts fall short is not helpful. The phrase, “did you know?” will get a more friendly response. People will say no, I didn’t know, but thanks for explaining.

My region is ahead of the curve in several ways. Where I live, our monthly bills from Waste Management depend on what size trash bin we select. The monthly fee includes large recycling and yard waste bins at no extra cost. Our yard waste bins take not only leaves and grass clippings but food waste, paper towels, and compostable packaging. The contents of the yard waste bin go to Cedar Grove, which transforms it all into compost.

I’ve learned that charging residential customers based on the size of their trash bins is not universal in the US. Some regions charge extra for recycling, encouraging people to throw more stuff away. Only 2% of communities in the US allow food waste in curbside yard waste bins. For everyone else, food waste usually goes in the trash. Some industrious, conservation-minded folks maintain backyard compost bins, but these take continual maintenance. Community compost sites are another option but those require people to carry food waste to the site. Nothing beats the convenience of curbside collection.

Food waste, however, is not what’s filling up my neighbors’ trash and recycling bins. From what I can see, it’s mostly packaging. There’s nothing wrong with buying a box of Satsuma mandarins from California. They are a healthy food, the transportation distance isn’t as bad as if they came from Florida, and the packaging is recyclable. I hope that my neighbors enjoyed all those mandarins.

But they should have broken down the box. If they flattened all the unseen cardboard inside the blue bin, it might have been able to close. Then the rain wouldn’t get in and the sorting facility would be able to sell the clean, dry cardboard inside.

I also see a plastic water bottle and wonder how many more are hiding in the bin. These are recyclable, but they are also unnecessary. Still, I won’t knock on my neighbors’ door and ask them why they don’t choose reusable bottles instead.

I can’t tell what all is in the plastic trash bag overflowing the green bin, but it is clear that my neighbor generated far more trash than could fit. This was early January. Perhaps they hosted parties in late December. Maybe the bin is filled with non-recyclable packaging from Christmas presents. In any case, I see an opportunity to reduce waste.

I have a dilemma. I want to explain to people why it is important to recycle properly and fill the bins with only as much waste as they can hold and still close. How do I educate well-meaning people without alienating and annoying them? If you were the one with the overflowing bins, how would you want another neighbor to approach you?