I’ve got a problem.
Some call it a problem, at least. Personally, I prefer “fixation.” Better yet, a love. Passion. Interest. Civic duty, if you want to be fancy about it.
Ask any of my former roommates; they’ll call it a compulsion. A quirk. The one descriptor they’ll use to sum me up to their next roommate. “God, she had this weird thing about recycling … drove me nuts.”
I’m not a neat freak or a diet fiend. I don’t color-code my closet and my earrings often don’t match. But my recycling bin? That matters.
This “problem” of mine increased tenfold during my first year of college in South Carolina, land of the Bible Belt, sickeningly sweet tea and men in steam-pressed pink shorts. Holly was my roll-of-the-dice roommate: an ardent lover of Bud Light Lime, ’80s rock and all things Dubya. She was everything I was not.
I remember our first conversation about recycling, when I excitedly pointed out that I’d brought a container for our recyclables so we wouldn’t constantly need to run down the hall to put them in the communal bin. I was sure we’d bond over our mutual love for Diet Coke and the hoard of empty cans we’d pile up in our tiny dorm.
She didn’t respond with the enthusiasm I’d blindly expected. “Eh, I don’t recycle,” she said, nonchalantly. I was dumbfounded.
For 18 years, I’d been living with parents who recycled everything, reused old yogurt containers and religiously composted coffee grounds.
For months, she mocked me for being a “hippie” while I playfully chided her each time I saw her toss another Bud Light Lime bottle in her garbage can. When she was away at class, I used to pick out her discarded bottles and cans and put them in my recycling bin.
I was so perturbed as to why someone would consciously not recycle. Wasn’t it just something you did? She often told me she didn’t recycle because she didn’t believe it had a purpose. “It’s stupid,” she told me. “You’re not making a difference. What’s the point?”
That was the first time I’d ever even fathomed the possibility. In my mind, the poster I’d seen in grade school charting how long waste remains in a landfill was enough to convince me forever. Recycle a glass bottle, save space in a landfill for up to one million years. Recycle paper and cardboard to protect a tree, bird’s nest, forest, habitat. So it goes.
Holly used to open the door for strangers and tutor underprivileged children. She listened to my juvenile problems with compassion and attentiveness, as I did hers. The dichotomy between her amiable behavior and repugnance for recycling perplexed me; how could this person I genuinely respected be opposed to something as fundamental as recycling? I had to figure it out.
I later read a study regarding consumer behavioral psychology toward recycling. Results outlined that people who in general demonstrated a greater sense of optimism in regard to personal efficacy were most likely to be “always” recyclers — people who would go out of their way to make sure recyclable items didn’t go in the trash.
The difference between an “always” recycler, “sometimes” recycler and a “never” recycler, the surveys found, wasn’t as much determined by an undying commitment to saving the environment as it was by a fundamental desire to “do good” and the belief that doing that good mattered. Based on ethnographic research, recycling mentality boiled down to a person’s emotional, not rational, tie to his or her actions; to become a ritual, the act of recycling had to be an act of optimism within itself — a testimony of hope and passion for others and the duty and desire to maintain to a sustainable, healthy environment.
I am an always-recycler. Holly is a never-recycler. I am not special or better than Holly, more hip or progressive, smarter or wealthier.
But I am a human that likes smiling and laughing and paying it forward. I like trust, optimism, second chances and not taking life too seriously. And I like recycling, because I believe it matters. It’s part of the personal formula I’ve written for myself in hopes of being the type of person you can call “good.”
I saw Holly recently for the first time in several years. “I’m writing about your recycling thing,” I told her. She laughed that same goofy, whole-hearted laugh of hers. “I helped my roommates carry out their recycling to the curb the other day,” she said. “I’m really evolving.” I smiled.
We, as humans, ought to be optimists. Life’s more fun that way.
CONTACT HANNAH MCCARTNEY: firstname.lastname@example.org