Help Me Help Them Help the Earth
April 22, 2009 7:54 PM   Subscribe

In honor of Earth Day, help me find a creative way to encourage my my neighbor to recycle. We have curbside recycling once a week and they never recycle anything. Their trash is an amazing collection of plastic water bottles, aluminum cans and lots and lots of paper. I hate to see all of this stuff go into a landfill when we have recycling and they have so much to be recycled. Can I do anything to gently prod them into maybe recycling? Is it even my business?
posted by Leezie to Human Relations (28 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Hang out where the bums cash in their bottles and cans and tell them about a treasure trove that keeps getting refilled every <pickup day>.
posted by porpoise at 7:58 PM on April 22, 2009 [6 favorites]

Offer to put their stuff in your recycling for them. Other than that, leave it alone. I can't imagine any good coming from making your neighbors' trash your business.
posted by logicpunk at 8:05 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've gone for months and months without recycling. There were perfectly good, empty bins waiting to be filled but I didn't recycle. I always felt guilty about it. It could be something as simple as not having easy access to the bin. I didn't have my bins set up in my kitchen. They were in the garage, so my reasons were mainly laziness and disorganization. I wouldn't recommend saying anything about it to your neighbors. It could come off as nosy and judgmental. Chances are they already feel bad about it. Maybe they're too stressed, depressed, unorganized, or simply don't care or don't believe in it. As long as it's legal, it's none of your business how they get rid of their trash. All you can do is keep doing your thing and set a good example.

If your neighborhood has a homeowner's association with a newsletter, or some other way of communicating, you could insert something positive and informative about recycling that aims at the entire neighborhood, instead of singling a person out.
posted by Fairchild at 8:14 PM on April 22, 2009

I'd consider a neighbor who came to me with knowledge of the contents of my trash to be quite unneighborly. You can't even follow logicpunk's suggestion without making an implicit accusation. It isn't your business and if you make it so you may well make an enemy of your neighbor and still not accomplish your green objective.
posted by fydfyd at 8:18 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Recycling is a mindset, not an activity. logicpunk really has the only suggestion that will work here. Anything else could be viewed by your neighbors as unwelcome paternalism on your behalf.
posted by hippybear at 8:20 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Well first, are you friends with them? That makes all the difference in the world. If you aren't, then no - it is absolutely none of your business and it would be seen as nosy and condescending. Don't be that neighbor. If you're friendly with them, then you might want to bring it up casually at the next community or neighborhood social event, but really, these types of observations never really go well unless there is a rapport already in place. Otherwise you just come off as holier than thou and a busybody.
posted by cgomez at 8:25 PM on April 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

Work through your town governance to institute a pay-as-you-throw program. This would make inroads not just with your neighbors' problem, but across your whole community, possibly letting you have a much bigger impact than you were even considering.

In pay as you throw, a municipality provides official trash bags that are recognizable, usually bright colors that are not found in regular store trash bags, to retailers - or sometimes sells the bags themselves through town offices. Then they are sold to the public at a small cost per bag. The waste disposal contractor or town utility is instructed only to pick up the official bags, no other trash bags. They pick up the recycling as usual.

Pay as you throw has a lot of advantages. Even though the cost per bag is really minimal (in the last town I had it, we paid $3.00 for six bags, .50 apiece) there is something in us that simply doesn't want to waste them. Having to pay for your bags means you look for ways to make sure those bags don't have anything in them that doesn't need to be - recycling, compostables. There's also a great argument that it's just fairer. Households that generate more trash pay more toward trash disposal.

So how's that for an Earth Day proposition? This article describes some of the kinds of programs out there, challenges and gains, and lists the following stats:
Pay-as-you-throw results
Portland, Ore: Increased recycling rate from 7 percent to 35 percent one year after implementing PAYT in 1992.

Austin, Texas: Increased recycling rate from 9.8 percent to 28.5 percent between 1991 and 2000.

Worcester, Mass: Reduced waste by 40 million pounds from 1992 to 1999.

Dover, N.H: Reduced waste by 7,100 tons each year from 1991 to 1999, achieved a 50 percent recycling rate, and saved $322,000 annually.

Falmouth, Maine: After beginning a PAYT program in 1992, the city immediately increased its recycling rate by more than 50 percent to 21 percent; trash disposal volumes decreased by about 35 percent; and it saved $88,000.

Fort Collins, Colo.: In 1996, the city increased its recycling rate to 79 percent participation in single-family and duplex households — up from 53.5 percent in 1995.

Gainesville, Fla: In 1994, the first year of the city's program, solid waste collected decreased by 18 percent from 1993, recyclables collected increased by 25 percent, and the city saved $186,000.
posted by Miko at 9:01 PM on April 22, 2009 [7 favorites]

Perhaps they believe that the contents of the recycling buckets go to the same landfills as the trash cans? I seem to recall having seen news coverage of that kind of thing going on in some places. Perhaps your neighbors have over-generalized. Or maybe they just don't feel like it.
posted by forthright at 9:10 PM on April 22, 2009

Is it even my business?

Yes. Once the trash leaves their house it becomes the shared responsibility of the human community. People dumping recyclables in the non-recycling bin are creating a shared landfill problem, which means the city needs to open another dump, which comes out of your council rates. In effect, they are costing you money.
posted by turgid dahlia at 9:19 PM on April 22, 2009 [5 favorites]

Admirable sentiment, but there are so many better ways you could devote your time.

You want to influence someone's decisions? Influence the decisions of your city or county government. Make it possible for people to drive less. Driving is WAY worse for the environment than not recycling. You'd have to recycle over 50 pounds of glass in order to equal the carbon benefits of saving just one gallon of gasoline. Something like 1/3 to 1/2 of the entire carbon emissions of your area probably come from cars. And cities and counties can do a lot about this: they can fund buses, put homes near restaurants and stores, or make better bike paths. And you can do a lot about this in your own life too, probably.

Setting aside climate, no matter what you care about (wildlife, water use, energy use, extractive damage like mining and drilling, toxins; anything except sheer landfill capacity itself), there are ways that you could get a bigger bang for your time buck than by bothering this neighbor. Maybe you could just use some of the paper they're tossing out to write "please take shorter showers, xoxo" and then bike around posting these signs all around your neighborhood. Kind of a lame idea, but you get the picture: there are things you can do that affect the behavior of hundreds or thousands of people, either via direct influence or via some indirect method (e.g., a better bus system would mean people don't have to drive as much), instead of wasting a lot of time and energy on this one stubborn neighbor. Get the low-hanging fruit! Good luck!
posted by salvia at 10:12 PM on April 22, 2009

Yes. Once the trash leaves their house it becomes the shared responsibility of the human community. People dumping recyclables in the non-recycling bin are creating a shared landfill problem, which means the city needs to open another dump, which comes out of your council rates. In effect, they are costing you money.

Let's not go there, you can make the same argument about sooooo many more important issues. If my neighbor started bitching at me about my recycling habits I would throw away more trash out of spite.
posted by BrnP84 at 10:48 PM on April 22, 2009 [7 favorites]

Afraid I've got to vote with the others who say this is probably not a good idea unless you're on really good terms with your neighbor. Commendable as your sentiment is, I just can't think of any way a neighbor could bring this up with me without me wondering just how much they were "watching" and what else they were tracking ... The last thing it would do is make me want to recycle more.

I think salvia's suggestion of tackling your local government's environmental policies makes a lot of sense and personally that's the one I would go for first, if you can find a way. Alternatively, maybe you could look to your own practices and see where you could become all the more earth-friendly? I would think that in the long run that would give you something you were far more likely to be able to affect and that could be more directly satisfying overall ...
posted by DingoMutt at 12:03 AM on April 23, 2009

Is it even my business?

As a citizen of the same planet: Oh hell yes.

As a nosy neighbor: No. Get off my lawn and quit sorting my garbage, you pervert!

They don't recycle because they only think there's something in it for them. If the media, their friends, co worker, church mates, and government incentives haven't done it, then a neighbor they don't know isn't going to.

Sorry. Not just for you but for them and everyone impacted by their garbage. In the middle of the night, when they won't catch you, take their garbage into your own garage, sort it , and put it back out on the curb.

Congratulations! You're a recycling faerie! Live and thrive in the fact you're a better person than your neighbor!
posted by Ookseer at 12:45 AM on April 23, 2009

Congratulations! You're a recycling faerie! Live and thrive in the fact you're a better person than your neighbor!

Don't thrive on it too much, you'll start polluting the air with smug.
posted by BrnP84 at 1:22 AM on April 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Do you put out recycling and regular trash on the same day? If so, you could just happen to be putting your recycling at the curb the next time your neighbor is putting out their trash. Then, you could just casually say "Hi neighbor!" and "Say, I'm going to be picking up some recycling bins soon. Would you like me to get some for you? Looks like you could use them!"
This frames it more like your offering to lend a neighborly hand and not trying to correct their behavior, while also avoiding the "I've been noticing your trash" angle.
I certainly don't think I'd be insulted by a neighbor who came at it this way, unless I was already a big jerk. If your neighbor turns out to be a big jerk, no loss.
posted by orme at 4:26 AM on April 23, 2009

I would like to counter the suggestion for the pay as you go programs. A couple of municipalities near me do this, and all it seems to have encouraged is fly-dumping on the side of the road. I'd suggest that the only workable solution is to encourage an all-trash sorting operation.
posted by gjc at 4:28 AM on April 23, 2009

I'm for lying. "My friend is doing an art project, and needs lots of plastic/glass/paper. When I was out the other day, I saw that you were getting rid of a bunch of it. Would you mind setting it aside for me in the future?"

Then take it to a recycling site.
posted by MonkeyToes at 4:30 AM on April 23, 2009

I see you are in Texas. Am I your neighbor?

Gosh, let me explain... Sometimes, for months on end, I am really into the recycling. Then, work and life become unmanageable, and just getting the trash from house to curb is an accomplishment regardless if it is sorted into recycling bins or not.

One time, I lost the piece of paper they gave me when I bought this house. You know the one -- it lists which plastics they recycle and which they don't, it outlines what types of metals go in the bin and which don't, etc. It took weeks of on-and-off effort to find out who does our recycling, and to let them know exactly which tax community I was in, so they could help me sort out what I'm supposed to sort.

And then there are the windy, rainy days -- see, I remember clearly the day my plastics were not picked up early, and the wind blew my trash all over the street, and I had to pick up my garbage from all over the neighborhood after a long day working.

I do throw away a lot of paper, but most of this is semi-confidential stuff that is work-related, and I just don't feel right putting it in the bin, because maybe it's not as secure and maybe all those secrets will blow down the street with the milk cartons and such.

One time, I went through a beer-drinking phase. It was shocking how many cans there were, and do I really want my neighbors to think I'm a total alcoholic? Hey yeah, they've got better things to do than to look in my recycling... but I see you do look!

I feel like a total ass for not being able to keep up to the recycling standard, but I'm doing the best I can. I'd be horrified if you called me on my recycling-slacker ways, and I'd be a little freaked out if I thought you were going through my garbage to see just how much of a slacker I am.

Please don't talk to me about the months I don't recycle. I'm doing the best I can. I know it's important, but I'm human and sometimes I don't do the perfect things. Plus, as neighbors, we must always see each other -- and I will just be uncomfortable waving to you in passing if I know you are judging me, and hoping to do my chores for me, and doing a mental (or physical) inventory of my trash.
posted by Houstonian at 5:27 AM on April 23, 2009 [6 favorites]

Is it even my business? : No.
posted by JeNeSaisQuoi at 6:13 AM on April 23, 2009

I think trying to gently prod a stranger to recycle would have the same effect as gently trying to prod them to be a better parent or gently prod them to become a Christian.

Evangelism of all sorts typically only works when you have a close relationship with those you are trying to convert, otherwise people think "Who are you to judge me?"

I suggest one of two things: 1) Become really good friends with your neighbor! Invite them over for dinner, ask them to go bowling, etc. After you are truly friends, the recycling conversation will be easy!

2) Offset their polluting ways by changing some of your habits. It's easier to change ourselves than others, right?
posted by rmtravis at 6:40 AM on April 23, 2009

They probably know all the ins and outs of why we "should" be recycling, or maybe they watched that episode of Penn and Teller's show (on Showtime) that said it was a useless waste of time.

Other than that I agree with rmtravis, I would try to befriend them first and then see if you can have the conversation.
posted by getawaysticks at 7:46 AM on April 23, 2009

Become a vegan. Or give up your car. Or stop buying any brand new possessions. That will more than offset any environmental problems caused by your neighbors' trash habits.
posted by decathecting at 7:59 AM on April 23, 2009

It is very much everyone's business (and for very direct economic reasons too - taxes! - which sets it very much apart from things like being good parents or religious evangelizing) but at the same time I wouldn't know how to approach a particular individual who is not into the habit of sorting their trash, unless they were already friends or acquaintances... with neighbours I'd never even spoken to, it could be very awkward.

I'd maybe go for a wider approach if you care about the issue, along the lines of what Fairchild suggests... It should be up to the town/state to give people incentives to recycle, and spread information about it, leaflets, posters, etc. Do your bit as a citizen to encourage/demand that if possible.

I would most certainly not offer to sort their trash for them, that would be even more annoying than ringing their door and saying 'hello, I noticed you don't do any recycling, may I take a minute of your time to illustrate the cost benefits of recycling to you and how it affects not only our environment but the money we all shell out in taxes?'.

Now, if you got to know them first, maybe even became somewhat friendly with each other just for the sake of it, and were lucky enough to find out they're actually nice enough people, then maybe maybe maybe you could at some point of your neighbourly-friendly relations approach the subject from a wide angle, possibly over a beer and bbq... But if gently prodding about recycling was your only goal in getting to know them, nah, too much effort, a bit too overzealous, and not very nice either!
posted by bitteschoen at 8:00 AM on April 23, 2009

There are, how many, nine billion of us? Your neighbour not recycling isn't what is going to destroy our civilization. Coordinated mass action is the only way to get large-scale results. If your city does not legislate or otherwise force recycling, that is where to put your efforts.

Leave the guy alone, not your business, your anal retentive eyeing of your neighbour's trash is freaking me right out.
posted by Meatbomb at 9:30 AM on April 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Though I still think you need a civic/municipal rather than personal solution, I also agree with the idea that recycling needs to be kept in proper perspective. Recycling isn't going to save the earth, as meatbomb says. The real problem is overproduction and overconsumption - recycling is only an attempt to reclaim some monetary value from waste products that can be reused in some other profit-making venture. For instance, I just read that much of the US's waste mixed paper has been going to China to be remade into cardboard boxes, which boxes then hold...whole bunches of other brand new, resource-using consumer products to be shipped back here to sit on the shelves of our mega discount retailers. How is this helping? The environmental problems caused by the profusion of plastic water bottles around the world are in no way offset even by a tiny fraction by the ability to recycle them into products for a dubious market, such as fake wood and fleece jackets. Recycling is not a big part of the solution for our environmental problems. Recently I learned that the phrase "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" was crafted in that order for a reason - they are the three choices for dealing with our waste problem, ranked in order of efficacy.
posted by Miko at 10:00 AM on April 23, 2009 [1 favorite]

Perhaps you could start a program for your block, through which you organize meetings to talk about recycling, help get the special bags/bins, find out the specifics of what goes where, etc. Say your plan is to start with your block, then expand it to your street, then your neighborhood. Have a block party/pot luck. Unite everyone toward a common goal.

There was even a essay about a similar issue: How I seduced my neighbors into going green. "I didn't want to be an eco-jerk. So I consulted a "global warming negotiator." That's when the fun began." Basically the author was tired of his neighbors' too-bright lights, so he instead started an energy-efficiency-awareness group and let them figure out on their own that the lights were excessive.

Or, you could steal their trash at night and sort it yourself.
posted by lhall at 12:29 PM on April 24, 2009

lhall's idea is good! In that group, you could discuss carpooling, too! See: factoid above re: one gallon of gas = 50 pounds of glass.
posted by salvia at 12:23 AM on April 26, 2009

My state did a survey on attitudes to recycling (pdf) that showed that there were 5 main groups - the relevant ones here are those who think recycling is useless, and those who don't know how to do it (which things can go in, if sorting or cleaning are necessary, etc). The other main reason people don't recycle is if their council doesn't provide the service, which obviously isn't the case here.

If you want your neighbours to change, you'd probably have to find out why they don't do it in the first place. And then maybe see if your local council has brochures that explain either why to do it, or how to do it. You could put them in their mailbox as if it were a council-wide letterbox drop, or ask the council to actually do a letterbox drop if your neighbours aren't the only ones who aren't taking advantage of the service.

It's your business, in that it's everyone's business, but it's not necessarily something you can fix without being nosy or intrusive.
posted by harriet vane at 1:27 AM on April 26, 2009

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