I was riding the Staten Island Ferry in New York City a few summers ago, sipping a cold drink and easing into the rhythm of being back east. Toward the end of the ride, I asked a worker at the snack bar where I could recycle my aluminum can. After an awkward pause, he laughed at me and said, "In the trash! You're not a New Yorker, are you …?"
Not anymore, apparently.
After 24 years of living in New Jersey and New York City, I had turned into a Seattleite in just 24 months. At the time, I was leaving New York for Seattle in 2005, and I'd never noticed the absence of a serious recycling program. But then again, how can you notice the absence of something you've never even experienced in the first place?
Here's what I remember about recycling in New York in those days: Mayor Michael Bloomberg suspended the recycling of all glass and plastics from 2002 to 2004. The city was operating on recycling laws from the late 1980s, and finding a recycling bin was like trying to hail a cab in a rainstorm—you could never find one when you needed it.
Now, I don't want to devolve into West Coast versus East Coast stereotypes here, but when it comes to going green, New York is light-years behind Seattle. I work in an office building where the utensils and plates are biodegradable, the bathrooms have water-saving toilets and compost, and recycling bins are as normal as printers and ergonomic chairs. This was all a major culture shock, coming from a New York office where we only recycled paper (which still mysteriously made its way into the trash on a regular basis).
When I first moved here, the biggest adjustment I had to make was to the way Seattleites recycle at home. In the New Jersey town where I grew up, our recyclables got picked up once a month—the rest was up to us. And even if my New York apartment did have recycling bins, I doubt I would've stood there sorting my recyclables on account of the giant rats guarding the dumpster. In Seattle, recycling isn't just easier—it's less expensive! Getting slapped with a fine because your trash contains more than 10 percent recyclables is a pretty good "go green" incentive, if you ask me.
But the one recycling trend I couldn't initially wrap my brain around was the large bins labeled "Yard Waste" sitting outside of so many apartment complexes. "People who live in apartments don't have yards. That's the whole point!" I thought. As I learned over the years, these are for composting everything from fall leaves to food scraps to greasy pizza boxes.
Hey, baby steps.
To be fair, New York's recycling program has changed in the four to five years I've been gone. Glass and plastic are recycled again, there are recycling bins around the city, and legislators are about to pass an Earth Day initiative that would significantly expand the recycling program. Even Seattle just started seriously enforcing recycling laws in 2006.
Still, in my short time here, the community (aka peer pressure) has played a major role in my going green. Right now, Seattle residents already recycle close to half of their garbage—the recently mandated food and yard waste service is likely to push that number closer to 60 percent. (The national average is 32 percent, which is actually better than I thought.)
As Susan Burton pointed out in Mother Jones, New York residents might only recycle 18 percent of their trash, but they also "produce much less waste than the average American: about 250 pounds less per household per year." She argues that reusing and reducing need to become an ingrained part of our city cultures—not something we constantly think about. I couldn't agree more.
Day-to-day, I rarely hear about Seattle's recycling program. I don't see many billboards or television ads about reducing waste—it's just a part of life. That's a crucial piece I didn't know was missing while growing up in the fine state of New Jersey. When I was young, I used to think that you had to travel to the Alps to see the kind of natural beauty—we're talking Sound of Music-style rolling hills and snow-capped mountains—that's commonplace in Seattle. And I want to keep that natural beauty around for a long time. For the first time, "saving the environment" seems less abstract, less impractical and much more personal.
How'd that happen?
Shiwani Srivastava is a Seattle-based freelance writer covering South Asian American community issues and cultural trends.