My sister and I went to one of those eateries recently where

My sister and I went to one of those eateries recently where you pick up after yourself and return the tray and rubbish back to a three-station recycle/compost/trash section near the door. I paid for the food, and she thusly insisted on doing the “clean-up” afterwards as I went and grabbed the car. I grabbed the car just fine, but surmised that something was amiss as I waited near the front door of the eatery in my car. After a few minutes, I jumped out of the car and came back in to the restaurant to see if everything was cool and found my sister a bit bleary-eyed and sweating as she carefully and laboriously sorted every last item to be perfectly discarded in the appropriate bin. We had a good laugh about how conditioned we are to avoid the “recycle police” or the discerning eye of the lurking “eco neighbor” who could be in that line behind you, or sitting somewhere in that same restaurant.

Some cities are way more environmentally conscious than others, and Seattle probably ranks among the top. There are recycle bins at homes in Los Angeles along with straight-up garbage bins and yard-waste bins, but unlike L.A., the Seattle residential recycle bins actually get checked by those drivers who come around every two weeks to collect them; if a resident has anything that is not a recyclable item, that truck will leave your bin full and sitting at your curb….a sort of eco “fuck you, loser.”

We’re seeing more and more those self clean-up eateries with the three-bin choice when you go to discard your plates, trays, cups, left over food remnants, glass, etc. It’s a comical sight most times to see the people there trying to figure out just what the hell goes in which bin. We all try to do our best, as we all feel that we are doing our ‘part’ to save the planet, one region at a time.

The interesting thing is this: Does all of this recycling do any good? Or is it just a big aspirin that makes us feel better about the shit tons of waste we all generate?

In my ‘30s, I went back to school to get a business degree. The great Seattle University was my choice, and it being a Jesuit school, we undergrads had to immerse ourselves in a variety of courses that covered social anthropology, philosophy, and religion (all quite fascinating actually). In one of the social anthropology courses, we did a huge semester-long study of waste, recycling, and the garbage mounds that anthropologist excavators look for to discover ancient town sites. Yes, they look for strange looking hillocks that don’t fit the topography in a given area in say, the Middle East or somewhere; they look for garbage heaps that have been naturally covered over with dust, dirt, and vegetation. Every one from antiquity to now, has garbage heaps.

All of that old stuff returns to a degraded state. Most of our modern stuff will too. Plastics can degrade and eventually sluice into the water table and get crappy things in there, but most other things just go away…except for Styrofoam and disposable diapers. Right, when those anthropologists in 2,000 years come looking for us, they will look for the grown over piles of non-degraded disposable diapers. No shit (couldn’t help myself there).

But, more to the point of the trucks and facilities that have now been employed to pick up all of our recyclables and clean and sort them, and get them eventually back into a recycled newspaper or whatever. It is great that this industry employs people, but think of this: There are now two trucks emitting double the pollution, and now, not one but two plastic non-degradable-water table-sluce-making bins in your front yard. Most people who work on-the-go like driving a truck, perhaps get their food in to-go styrofoam containers, so we have to double that as well. And what about all of the pollutants that go into the water at these facilities that clean this stuff? And, are those workers there eating from styrofoam as well? Could be. What about the millions of tons of batteries that we discard? Where does all of that toxic acid go?

Our findings that semester at S.U. was that it was about a 50/50 proposition. Recycling is great, but the waste that the industry produces may indeed even the playing field, and we are running out of places to put our garbage (not to mention places to put our goddamn carbon emissions)!

But it makes us feel good to recycle. It’s one big ol’ aspirin…maybe.

There is more that we can do though. Use less paper when possible. Compost your own food waste, and use it in your garden if possible, instead of putting it in that “compost bin” they give you. Re-use your plastic milk cartons for something else, or get the paper cartons instead. The disposable diaper thing is what it is. They are just too damn convenient, and it would be a damn hard sell to convince a whole drove of new parents to go back to cloth (and what about that waste in the clean-up?). Drive less and car-pool more. Scan things like legal docs and get email tickets to concerts and sporting events and airline tickets on your iPhone. Eat at home and bring your lunch to work in a Scooby-Doo lunch pale. Drink water from a refillable water bottle from home when you need water throughout the day at work or at play. Our study at S.U. found these above steps—if done by everyone—would make a massive difference.

I’m not trying to suggest that we should all stop going out to places to eat; the food in Seattle is just too damn good. But next time you are at a restaurant or some such place with the bins that make you sort out your paper and plastic and compost, hurry the fuck up. I’m waiting outside with my car running!