BRING Recycling Back to “Natural Groups”

Eugene City Councilor Alan Zelenka wants to know how the recycled glass collected curbside has ended up in roadbeds and put to other industrial uses, instead of being recycled to make new glass. If only he could ask Alice Soderwall about the current commingling bins we all use today.

Soderwall had a little business next to Sundance Foods in the 1970s called The Glass Station. She foraged glass containers, cleaned them, and sold them. She was one of Eugene’s first recycling pioneers.

She and a bunch of others decided the best way to save the planet would be if everyone would simply “Begin Recycling In Natural Groups.” After repeating that mantra several thousand times, they shortened it to what we now know as BRING, as in “Don’t wait for a better future; BRING it.”

About that same time and 2,000 miles away, my mother was busy wrangling seven children. The “tight ship” she ran seemed to have some peculiar exceptions. Any summer day when the temps rose above 90 degrees, she left a glass of iced tea by the mailbox. When one of us needed shoes, we always went to Crawfords department store three towns away, but never on Mondays.

Why did she indulge these inefficiencies? As with so many things, she was being shrewd and strategic. Her favorite shoe salesman (who didn’t work Mondays) got to know all of us and what we liked in shoes. He could fit us and please us so quickly, it more than made up for the drive.

Our mail carrier returned my mom’s favor in little ways we didn’t understand. If she had a package to mail, she could leave it by the mailbox with a dollar attached. The package would vanish and the next day, a few coins would appear in the mailbox. As a kid, I thought that’s how it worked.

We’re less casual now, especially with commerce. In many cases, we’ve become more efficient and less effective.

Our trash haulers pick up our glass and other recyclables with amazing speed at a very low price. Commingling has made recycling easy and participation rates have never been higher. But automation and mechanization has all but removed any human contact between consumer and contractor.

We accept this reality in today’s world of ATMs and phone trees, but some of the costs are hidden in the middle of the supply chain. When our haulers go to sell the glass to be recycled, it doesn’t meet the cleanliness standard required for the recycling process. So the glass is sold instead to a less discriminating buyer, one who crushes it and uses it as a filler in roadbeds.

“But that’s not recycling,” we complain. And it’s not. But it’s also true that we haven’t done our part, cleaning and properly separating our curbside recyclables. Not long ago, before the commingling program began, I would occasionally get notes in my recycling bin to tell me what I was doing wrong.

I wasn’t being scolded; I was being educated. Achieving higher standards required human contact. We’re losing that, at our peril.

A few months ago, I groused to the check-out clerk at my neighborhood grocery store that their price for Toby’s Tofu spread was too high. He confided that the store’s purchaser refused to buy it, so the store manager sent somebody over to Market of Choice each week to buy a week’s supply for their shelves.

For some reason, that endeared me to two grocery stores at once. Without that little bit of chit-chat, those middle steps would have been invisible to me. And soon they will be, once grocery check-out is fully automated — losing more small moments of endearment.

We’re eliminating the social aspect of improvement — what Alice and others called “natural groups” — because education and endearment slow things down.

The assumption made is that we’d rather not be bothered. But without learning and wonder, everything matters a little less.

When we’re not bothered, we become less likely to bother. We don’t clean our glass jars as thoroughly and lovingly as Alice once did, because who’s going to notice?

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a column each Friday for The Register-Guard and blogs