The Limits of Our Experience

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If we continue to keep people in the dark about how we manage recycling and garbage, how can we ever expect to change it?

Jamie RhodesBy Jamie Rhodes, Program Director, UPSTREAM
July 19, 2016

Roman Mars, on his popular podcast “99% Invisible,” recently discussed Taiwan as an example of what can happen when the general public is informed about recycling and composting programs. In the case of Taiwan, a fundamental shift in their program was possible. Instead of pest-ridden dumpsters and litter strewn streets, there is now a five day a week ritual where people meet their garbage truck in the street and source separate all of their materials in a pay-as-you throw system. Failure to sort material is enforced by a fine. Dumpsters have been eliminated as the system design pushes people towards less material disposal and encourages maximization of value without centralized, capital-intensive sorting machines.

This system was created because the people of Taiwan lived with a problem and created an innovative solution. Before implementation, garbage in the streets and overflowing dumpsters was an obvious sign of failure. This issue led to a concern about being considered a non-modern nation with failing waste infrastructure.  With that came an opportunity, during a time of national democratization, to develop a better system. As everyone experienced and interacted with the old failing system, people were driven to make fundamental changes. A new, cleaner and more efficient collection and processing system, and the population’s commitment to this new system, only worked because of education, outreach and a shared experience.

Unfortunately, the existing US method of managing trash and recycling is opaque by design. We do not see what happens after our waste is picked up and do not experience its failures or successes. Hiding it from the public view leads to two dangerous outcomes. First, there is no foundation on which people can be mobilized to advocate for systems change when necessary. Second, lack of public scrutiny can lead to corruption and a system that enriches a few actors at the expense of the whole.

Let’s consider K-12 education as an analogy. Almost every US citizen has gone through one of series of similar primary school education systems. This leads to individualized evaluations as to the impact of the system as a whole. If nothing else, that experience allows each and every person to develop an opinion as to the flaws and benefits of their education. By aggregating these experiences, recognizing differences and debating priorities, education policy is developed, implemented, tested and continuously changed. We may not agree with current aspects of it, but we are equipped with the knowledge to advocate for change at the points of disagreement.

Public debate in the U.S. is often loud and unruly. People can be opinionated and obstinate. The experience of each person is given credibility and exists as a reasonable foundation on which to advocate for change. This is not a system flaw; it is a feature. It is time for a public debate about the operation, funding, priorities and goals of how trash and recycling is managed throughout the country.

Everyone in the country utilizes some form of waste management system. It is a critical piece of infrastructure, and without it cities across the country could look like Taiwan before they undertook their radical change. We are all forced into utilizing a service, yet the service has been designed to keep us from a true evaluation. There is a collective inability to know whether the service provider is accomplishing the outcomes we may desire. The two criteria by which service providers are evaluated is 1) does stuff disappear, and 2) is the service cheaper than the competitors. There needs to be more transparency and engagement with customers as to the role waste management plays in our lives and its impact on our society, economy and environment.

It is time for advocates of system change to find ways to build in transparency and public education as to how the existing program works. People need to know the importance that recycling plays in the local economy. Those engaged in the collection, sorting and processing of material are valued members of our community and play a critical role in its function. The consumer decisions we make and disposal methods we utilize have a real world impact. Let us build a closer connection.

By tearing away the veil of ignorance behind which our waste management system operates, we can begin to have a public conversation around what our collective goals should be. Should the focus be reducing waste generation and greenhouse gas emissions associated with consumerism? How does my recycling or compost achieve that? Which service providers prioritize this? Are there clear standards and evaluations of their claims? That is just one metric, but standardized data and competent analysis needs to be available to the public in order for us to be informed consumers of goods and customers of our materials management systems.

Existing debates around policies such as landfill bans, recycling mandates, extended producer responsibility, or composting requirements, are generally kept between government agencies and those companies and organizations with a financial stake in policy outcomes. It is a push and pull between monetary interests and government entities. The public, however, is excluded from this debate because we have been taught that only a limited set of criteria is important. Let’s look beyond whether stuff disappears from our home at the lowest possible cost and begin to create the system we need.

Featured image credit:

Separation Anxiety


Recycled Sorting in Taiwan

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