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Shades of Green: Recycling in Fayetteville (Part 1)

landfill recycling
A quest to recycle a guacamole container uncovers the complex realities of being “green” in Fayetteville.
by Sydne Tursky

 

It all started with a guacamole container.

It was just a simple, clear plastic tub. I checked the bottom of the container to find that it was a #2 plastic. I threw it in the recycling bin.

I saw it again the next day, and something niggled at my brain: Fayetteville only recycles #1 and #2 bottle-shapedplastics. I placed that ill-fated guac container on the kitchen counter and didn’t move it for weeks; each time I passed by, I felt like I was being mocked by this evil bowl that, for some silly, seemingly arbitrary reason that was based on its shape and not its chemical composition, was destined to be trash forever.

I’ll admit, this wasn’t the first time I’d been haunted by waste. In recent years, learning more about the effect of climate change and pollution on our planet has started to weigh on me. I read article after article about deforestation and chemical contamination and waning animal populations. No joke, I once had a nightmare that the 79,000-ton floating island of plastic in the Pacific Ocean had risen up and consumed the United States in anger that we had created it. It wears on me that our own convenience has been placed ahead of the Earth’s well-being, and we still don’t place nearly enough emphasis on the processes that could help stop and reverse these consequences.

I’m not sure why the guacamole container was the trigger, but it became a physical embodiment of all my fears, complaints and suspicions about my town’s green hypocrisy.

Fayetteville loves to market itself as a “green” city. There’s the Recycle Something campaign, designed to encourage Fayetteville residents to recycle. There’s the new recycling and trash master plan that was passed in February 2017; the plan aims to achieve 40 percent waste diversion by 2027, doubling our current level.

“We’re thought of as such a progressive community,” said Brian Pugh, the city’s waste reduction coordinator. “Fayetteville wants to be the leader … We want to show that we can divert more materials than what we are, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Fayetteville was even one of the first 10 cities to commit to the Paris Climate Agreement after President Donald Trump pulled out of it. In 2011, the city mandated that all new civic buildings be LEED certified. The city operates a pay-as-you-throw program for homeowners – they pay more for curbside collection if they produce more trash. With the largest university in the state, progressive values and seemingly endless funding from Walmart, we should easily live up to our image and be the greenest city in the state, if not the whole region. If, as Pugh said, the city wants to be a leader, the city should be the best leader it can be.

Yet, I could not recycle this one package that was so close to being recyclable. Frustration led to research. I talked to a lot of people who knew both a lot and a little about recycling. I read article after article about recycling and waste and everything else we get rid of. I asked questions that made at least one city council member angry, and before long, it was abundantly clear that Fayetteville’s recycling problems go far beyond my lowly guacamole container. I dug deep into the city’s recycling process and was enthralled by a long, contentious debate about how our recycling is collected. In the end, I was surprised to learn that, yes, Fayetteville is a little hypocritical, but not about just recycling. Our recycling program could definitely use some work – nearly 30 percent of objects that could be recycled are landfilled by uncaring or unknowing residents instead – but recycling isn’t everything, and being green is a lot more than just throwing your guacamole container in the green bin.

Check back next week for Part 2 in this series on recycling in Fayetteville. 

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