City puts recyclers out on the curb

December 18, 2007|By JEAN MARBELLA

Well, that worked out well, didn't it?

I'm talking about those precious yellow recycling bins, which are probably selling on eBay for triple or quadruple their price even as we speak. Those now worth-their-weight-in-gold containers that thousands lined up to buy at this weekend's "Bin Kick-Off" events at several city schools, only to be turned away empty-handed when the city ran out of them.

The yellow bins are for next year's switch to single-stream recycling. Come Jan. 8, you can dump all your fine recyclables - paper, plastic, bottles, cans - in a single container, which will be picked up twice a month.

I drove out to Montebello Elementary for mine - actually, I planned to get two because, being an obsessive-compulsive recycler, I didn't like the idea of mixing wet-from-rinsing bottles and cans with dry paper and cardboard. I imagined my new yellow bins quickly developing clumps of wet paper, terminally stuck on the bottom. Yuck.

But one look at the overflowing parking lot and the line of my bundled-up and increasingly irritated fellow citizens, and I abandoned the mission and headed home.

"The new system will help make recycling simpler, easier," went the pitch in "The Dixon Report" that Mayor Sheila e-mails every Friday, "and boost participation."

So why, then, only order a supply of 10,000 bins - the same number of households that already recycle?

Because this is Baltimore, where even good ideas manage to go awry.

The city says more yellow bins are being ordered. And besides, you apparently can use any container, like paper bags or boxes, or any colored bin that you mark as bearing recyclables. Anything, apparently, but the plastic bags that currently can be used for recycling bottles and cans.

Why not?

Because this is Baltimore, where even a move toward simplification tends to get complicated.

None of this, though, addresses my current and seasonal garbage dilemma: dead electric candles.

You've seen these, or have them in your own windows - very tasteful, very classic, very Williamsburg (which, I see on its Web site, claims to have started the candles-in-the-windows Christmas tradition).

What is with these candles - I used to get a couple of seasons out of them, replacing one or two every couple of years, but lately, I could measure their life span in minutes. I started out with four from previous years, and already have bought seven more to replace the ones that suddenly burn out. For some reason, I've been having a personal, rolling blackout in the four windows that I've put candles in.

Now I don't expect these things to last forever. But I've had one candle that stopped glowing the same day I bought it, and another that was DOA out of the box. Since then, I've started losing track, so I'm not sure which ones I'm replacing, the new ones or the old ones.

"You get what you pay for," Trina Tocco tells me.

Tocco is a Washington-based labor activist who believes that the demand for ever-cheaper products has led to all sorts of evils, from shoddy workmanship to exploited workers to excessive waste.

She's right about the cheap part. Depending on where I went for that day's replacement candle, I never paid more than a couple of dollars for one - in fact, on one excursion to a Wal-Mart, I grabbed two candles, each marked $2.27, but somehow at the register, the total was a dollar and change. At a Rite-Aid, I picked up a two-candle box, marked $7.99, but it too turned out to be half-off at the register.

Tocco, who works with the International Labor Rights Forum and the Big Box Collaborative, said the super-discounters like Wal-Mart have created such low-price expectations that there's simply no incentive for other retailers to sell better - but perhaps more expensive - products.

"Why would a company sell more expensive Christmas lights?" she said. "Consumers just think they're cheating them."

Meanwhile, I have all these dead candles, which don't fit into any recyclable "stream" so they're headed to a landfill.

"We have all these different waste streams now, so there are all these new challenges," Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Computer TakeBack Campaign, which encourages companies to take back and recycle all those electronics that they sell us - and then tend to end up in the dump when they sell us newer versions of them.

While electronic candles aren't part of her efforts, Kyle says they're part of the same growing problem of e-waste, and garbage in general.

Kyle advises consumers to consider "product stewardship," which means knowing, when they buy something, what will eventually become of it once it's outlived its usefulness. "The point is, if you can't recycle it when you're done with it, then companies have to think about designing it differently," she said.

In other words, the solution has to happen at the front end of a product's life-cycle, long before its end - hopefully in a yellow bin.

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