Hard to recycle religiously in land of agnostics

Friday, June 7, 2019, Vol. 43, No. 23

There’s good news for Nashville – though not great – on the curbside recycling front, a topic that has become close to my heart in recent years.

During my previous Nashville incarnation in the 1990s, as with my earlier Southern way stations, there was no curbside recycling.

But for the 18 years we spent as Dixie expats in a village on Long Island, the trash and recycling services we received spoiled us with reliability and frequency:

• Garbage pickup twice a week, on Mondays and Thursdays

• Newspapers, magazines and other paper recyclables on Tuesdays

• Metals, glass and plastic on Wednesdays.

The garbage trucks came so often, in fact, that our household of two humans at times didn’t produce enough to keep pace. This despite the concerted assistance of various cats, reliable sources of organic output in need of disposal. So, we’d skip the occasional pickup, while accumulating a larger load.

All in all, we were, I’d have to say, blessed with an abundance of sanitation caretaking. (And the abundant tax bill to pay for it.)

Fast-forward to our Nashville return and downtown apartment living. Our building has a handy chute for depositing trash and accepts cardboard boxes to be recycled, both for a monthly fee of $25.

We’re on our own for the rest.

As you might imagine, 18 years of helping reincarnate old cans, bottles, tin foil, paper and plastics instills a certain routine. The habit becomes ingrained.

We couldn’t just revert to type, as it were, and send everything to the junk heap or landfill or whatever Nashville uses as its garbage repository since it quit burning it for electricity.

So, Kayne has, from time to time, been clinking and clanking away with bags of stuff to toss into the recycling bins in Old Hickory when visiting her mother.

Relief is on the way, however. In some weeks we expect to leave the apartment experience behind for an Urban Services District, single-family dwelling that will come complete with trash pickup.

Once a week.

And recycling pickup.

Once a month.

Glass not included.

As it happens, I once worked with a fellow, John Tierney, who decades ago made something of a name for himself as a contrarian on the recycling issue. In 1996, he wrote a long article for The New York Times Magazine that proclaimed (in the headline) that “Recycling Is Garbage.”

The practice, he wrote, “may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.”

Time apparently did not soften John’s views, since he came back in The Times in 2015 with an opinion piece defending his original contention.

Time may also be bolstering his point.

As buyers (like China) of recyclable material have begun to get out of the business or increase restrictions, some cities have been cutting back on programs.

But as John noted in his 2015 piece, the recycling urge lies apart from profit.

“It makes people feel virtuous, especially affluent people who feel guilty about their enormous environmental footprint.

It is less an ethical activity than a religious ritual, like the ones performed by Catholics to obtain indulgences for their sins.”

Virtue, that’s our aim, though we make no claims for affluence or enormous footprint, environmental or otherwise. And though also not a Catholic by denomination, I am religious in my fervor for recycling ritual. My wife is even more devout, in that she looks forward to once again having a yard and flowerbeds to accommodate composted vegetable matter.

Which is why I greeted with mixed enthusiasm the news that, sometime next year, Nashville will increase its curbside pickups to twice a month.

Still rather stingy, in my estimation. And still without including glass.

But considering how things are going elsewhere, I should probably be thankful.

As with religion or virtue, any recycling is better than none.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com.