Lexington’s recycling woes take us backward 40 years. Can discomfort lead to change?

Are you recycling wrong?

Recycling program manager Angela Poe explains what can and can not go into recycling bins in Lexington, Kentucky.
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Recycling program manager Angela Poe explains what can and can not go into recycling bins in Lexington, Kentucky.

I recently returned from vacation.

While I’m never ready for any vacation to be over, I always look forward to the stack of mail and newspapers that have accumulated in my absence. For a paper-junkie like me, it’s like Christmas morning. Somebody might have sent me a letter. Or maybe the Kroger coupons came. Maybe it’s time for the latest Backpacker magazine. And the stack of newspapers, well, who know what I’ll discover in there!

Disturbing my paper euphoria was the news that our recycling center could no longer take mixed-use paper. Mixed-use paper includes envelopes, newspapers, magazines, granola bar boxes, and toilet paper rolls: the items that fill up my Rosie each week while the Herbie waits patiently for its two monthly trips to the curb.

My first real foray into recycling was a college project. We started a recycling program on campus in the early 1990s. We educated folks about how much waste we generate and how much we could prevent going into landfills by simply recycling our school and office paper. We put bins around campus and watched happily as they were filled up over and over again. People bought into the program and it continues to be a success today.

From that moment on recycling was second nature to me. Nobody had curbside recycling pickup back then, so in my first apartment I kept my own bins in the kitchen and took them to the recycling center once a week. My roommate and I joked that both of us couldn’t be in the kitchen at the same time because the bins overwhelmed our small space.

But recycling, or a lack thereof, isn’t a laughing matter. Recycling is a mainstay of environmental stewardship that has become a habit for many Americans. This is a step backward.

Curbside recycling was a blessing and when we could finally mix glass in with our paper, plastic, and, cans, I remember doing a little jig on my way to the Rosie.

And now here I am, a recycler of almost 40 years, and I’m back to putting paper in the trash. I’ve gone from filling my Herbie up once every two weeks to having a full container every week. It took a week before I took handfuls of paper to the trash can instead of the recycling bin. And every time I did, it felt wrong, like I was working against years of muscle memory.

I understand this stoppage of service is only temporary and I hope that turns out to be true. I know Lexington is working hard to find a solution to this problem that is largely out of its control. For that I’m appreciative.

Still, I’m left with the feeling that in the interim I’m doing more harm than good. We’ve all heard the phrase, “reduce, reuse, recycle.” If I can’t recycle, can I reduce or reuse? I reuse pretty well, but what about reduction?

I’m a paper girl. I love newspapers, holding books in my hands, and I keep a paper calendar. I make lists, lots of lists, on paper. I edit all my writing on a printed copy. I’m addicted to paper.

Back at work, I became immediately aware of how much I printed. Some printing is necessary, but a lot of what I printed? Not so much.

I do have paperless billing at home, but am I willing to give up the newspaper? Better Homes & Gardens? Can I use GPS instead of paper maps when navigating long trips? Where is the fun in that? It’s a question all of us will now have to ask ourselves.

Maybe by the time I can recycle paper again, my reduction practice will have taken hold. Habits are hard to break. I recently heard on a podcast, “You can’t evolve unless you are uncomfortable.” I guess it’s time to be uncomfortable.

Shelley Roberts Bendall lives in Lexington. She is a former Community Columnist.