The Second Can: A Reduce, Reuse, Recycle Refresher

By Ryan Egly

Like most people in this age of digital point-and-shoot cameras, I am an amateur photographer. Family events, nature, pets, and for the predictable college student on Facebook, beer – all are familiar material for that never-ending quest to capture life in the way we wish to portray it. And the way I wish to portray it oft finds expression in an object that’s as common as it is overlooked.

I have been enthusiastically documenting this object for years and hope to someday put together a tasteful photo journal. It is sure to be found at any function, neighborhood, church, school, mall, or place of public gathering. Christmas, Easter, the Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving of 2011 – specifically the aftermath – was a good time to catch a glimpse of this subject.

Washingtong DC Trash Starbucks Coffee trash cans

I shoot garbage. I don’t mean that figuratively. The images in the trash collage here are from the aftermath of a Fourth of July concert in Madison, WI and a Starbucks (the volume in the picture was produced multiple times during the week).

Trash is one the most salient features of modern culture. It is everywhere and nearly everything we do produces it. Enormous sums change hands to move it, compress it, recycle it, or dump it out of sight. Battles are fought to keep it somewhere or put it elsewhere. Our trash reveals every facet of our collective lives; holidays we celebrate and drugs we take, our passions and our pleasures.

According to the EPA, per capita municipal solid waste (MSW) generation in the U.S. rose from 2.68 to 4.43 pounds between 1960 and 2010. The waste is either recycled, goes to landfills, or is burned. In 2010, 54.3 percent was discarded, 34 percent was recovered in the form of recycling and composting, and 11.7 percent was combusted for energy recovery. Residential waste is estimated to contribute 55-65 percent of total MSW generation.

How do we stack up globally? It probably won’t shock you to know that we lead most of the industrialized world in waste generation. Other growing, increasingly affluent countries like China, Brazil, and India are also becoming increasingly wasteful with all their newfound wealth, although the large percentage of their population still living in poverty keeps those countries off of a top 10 list.

Let’s get back to the local scene. On pickup day, If you were to venture down any of thousands of local suburban streets, you might notice a new and disturbing trend: the second can. The first can is already an impressive monolith, easily large enough for a grown man or two to squeeze inside. But, increasingly, that is not enough for Mom, Dad, and the 2.1 kids; now there is a second overflowing can at the end of many driveways.

Solar panels, energy efficient windows, hybrid cars – all require a careful cost benefit analysis. But not this! There is little or no cost, and only benefit! There is also an economic benefit to the city as a whole, which we will see later. With a little planning, this deplorable status quo can easily be challenged.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Reduce reuse recycle

Remember these, the “three R’s” of environmental responsibility? Many of us do our parts with a little recycling, but reduce and reuse often get short shrift. That’s too bad, because not only are reuse and reduce better for the planet, integrating them into your daily life can save you serious coin, unlike recycling.

First and foremost: Reduce. If you can afford it, buying in bulk (especially where items are sold loose without packaging) is a major help here, as well generally saying “no” to new, unneeded purchases. One surfire technique is to “sleep on it” before adding another fancy gizmo to your collection. Reading Nvate means you’re probably no stranger to the joy of unwrapping and using a new gadget, but I often see if an overnight wait might soothe my itchy debit-card finger. If something is really worth my $49.95 plus shipping, then I’ll still want it tomorrow. Frankly, it’s a good way to save money for something even cooler.

Reuse is also fairly self-explanatory, but allows for a little creativity in fixing and finding new uses for old stuff. If you’re not feeling creative there’s a whole community online willing to share their best re-uses for things. You might be surprised at how much you can save, and how little you have to sacrifice.

The last R, recycle, is what happens with the small quantity that remains after the first two steps. Although an essential component of the sustainability movement, recycling gets far too much attention. As with the zealous campaign to eliminate plastic bags, one must be careful to not let recycling become another symbolic victory. It is less wasteful and more practical to use cloth bags, but what really counts is what the bag carries – those purchasing decisions made every time you open your wallet.

In the same way a large green container filled to the brim with recyclables is not a good thing; only better than a trashcan filled the same way. Both cloth bags and recycling must be part of a broader shift in lifestyle, and neither serves as a substitute for change.

So what made me such an anti-recycling Grinch? While working in Louisville I introduced a recycling box to the company break room. After a few months of seeing fast food refuse fill the container, I began to suspect that the box was silencing the true message. Anytime an issue related to sustainability would come up amidst the forced diplomacy of the workplace, the answer invariably came, “Well, we recycle!”


nature mill automated under cabinet indoor inside composter

Over 12 percent of municipal waste is estimated to be food scraps. Composting is incredibly easy and creates rich soil for gardens and potted plants. There are many different ways to do this, from store bought composters to homemade units (a lot more fun!). After starting it is hard to imagine not composting, it is that simple. A very good guide on how to build your own composting bin can be found at the University of Missouri Extension website . I built a three stage unit similar to the one outlined and it is working well. Gadget hounds should check out the automated, under-cabinet composters that let you drop in food like its your own, personal “Mr. Fusion.” Check out NatureMill indoor composter if you’re interested in automated composting.

Money Talks

Of course, it’s not all about individuals cutting back, some municipalities are testing new ways of charging people for the privilege of garbage pickup. In Pay as You Throw (PAYT) and Garbage by the Pound (GBTP) systems collection fees are based on the volume or weight of a household’s trash rather than on property taxes or a fixed fee. Municipalities and low-waste households save money, while the environment gets a hand.

There is a growing body of documentation that supports the effectiveness of these programs. The city of Malden, MA, for example, is saving $2.5 million and reducing MSW generation by around 50 percent by implementing a PAYT system. According to the EPA, over 7000 communities are taking advantage of intelligent trash pickup.

The Bottom Line

Recycling piles of trash feels good, but recycling – which takes water and energy – isn’t free of environmental cost. It’s easy as both a tech enthusiast and a rational, eco-concerned individual to be entranced by the latest breakthrough in photovoltaics or electric car technology, and forget that the greenest product of all is the one that isn’t made.

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