Recycling policies need to evolve for efficiency

If I had a dollar for every time I complained about the recycling system, by now I would have enough money to fix it.

Before Oct 1, glass waste went into the recycling bin as it had since recycling’s inception.

But after recycling centers complained of glass damaging their machines, Fairfax County has provided purple dumpsters for everyone to throw their glass refuse away.

Now you can load all of your glass into your car, find one of these hidden dumpsters, find a way to put the glass into the receptacle without cutting yourself and then drive back to your house to do it again the following week. Or you could just chuck it in the garbage, which is exactly what you are going to do. People tend to value their time and money over a green thumb, and that is okay. That is the way we expect people to act, and those are the consequences that Fairfax County should be willing to accept.

People act in their own self interest. That is not a criticism, it is a fact. In this case, it is in the county’s interest to recycle glass separately from paper and plastic, but it is in your self interest to save gas and time by throwing your glass in the trash. This is called a Tragedy of the Commons. Beneficial to the environment as recycling glass may be, it will not happen if it is not beneficial to the individual, that will never change.

Therefore the idea that people will drive their heavy glass to a distant location in spite of a much more logical alternative is contradictory to human nature itself.

But the county wants to keep dreaming about the fantastical green-minded citizens who love recycling. Sure, that would be nice, but in order to affect any significant change, policies must reflect the way humans behave.

Offering glass recycling bins may not be ecologically efficient, but it constructs the ideal moral image for policy makers.

If the county announced that it would no longer accept glass in recycling at all, the current policy makers will look bad and apathetic. And when policy makers look bad, they do not get re-elected.

So the situation calls for a strawman recycling effort to retain the support of special interest groups, even though what we really need are solutions.

The reason the county will not offer glass recycling is because the glass shards are damaging to the recycling machines. And therein lies the solution to glass recycling: fix the machines. If this were a common issue, then people across the nation would refrain from recycling glass.

If policy makers want real solutions instead of elaborate shams designed to gain votership, then they will find a way to invest in new machinery efficient enough to remedy glass recycling issues.