I almost punched a girl last week.
Actually, I’m sensationalizing: I wasn’t really about to hit someone when some grand revelation struck – this isn’t one of those columns. But there was a girl and there was an incident.
Waiting to cross State St. at the intersection of East William, I was standing behind a girl who was absentmindedly skimming a newspaper (I like to think it was the Daily). As we crossed the street, she decided that the paper was lame (apparently not the Daily after all) and tossed it into a garbage can.
I was furious. Paper is meant to be recycled. Who doesn’t know that? She’s clearly just a lazy college student too absorbed in her iPod to think of the big beautiful rainforests that will suffer thanks to her insolence. Recycling – it’s old news, and if you still haven’t gotten it, you deserve scorn.
Almost instantly that insanity faded, and I stopped for a second in the middle of the sidewalk to smile at the sudden emergence of a rigid dogma that was shockingly ironic. Let me explain.
I was born and largely raised in New Delhi, India – a beautiful city in many ways, but also part of a gigantic metropolis teeming with about 14 million people (nearly as many as New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles combined, if you can imagine such a thing). Fourteen million people means a whole lot of refuse. I don’t mean to speak ill of my first hometown, but there was literally litter everywhere. If you wanted to build a collection of dirty plastic bags, candy wrappers or bottle caps, the streets of New Delhi (or indeed, any large city) would be a great place to begin.
The problem in New Delhi wasn’t just people haphazardly littering anywhere and everywhere (though that was a large part of it): It was also that instead of landfills there were open garbage dumps, from which even the little trash that was properly disposed of could easily escape. While shifting toward sophisticated, functional landfills would cost too much, the Indian government did start a large-scale campaign to encourage people to “put litter in its place.”
That campaign certainly had an effect on me. I remember my 8-year-old self reading that slogan on the back of potato chip bags and actually being compelled to pick up other bags I found lying on the street (to my mother’s horror). Sure, those were the tiniest of baby steps that only addressed one small part of the problem, but it’s something, isn’t it?
Unfortunately, in the judgmental eyes of the world, it’s not. In an ever-progressing society where standards are raised the moment they are met, it seems mind-boggling to the average American that any nation in the world (a democracy no less) could still have open garbage dumps harboring rodents carrying the bubonic plague. It’s an appalling reality that must be addressed, but progress must be seen in its context. If the Indian government can just convince its people to throw all their garbage in the proper receptacles, it would be a huge win. Closed landfills and recycling can wait.
Similarly, American progress on environmental issues must be put into context. The University may like to brag about how much paper and plastic it recycles every year, but judging by the numerous plastic bottles and papers you find lying in garbage cans – not the mention the reams of paper needlessly printed and abandoned at the printers in the Fishbowl – we’re not doing nearly enough. And even the recycling we do do may not be so helpful after all. Paper recycling outsourced to China produces toxins that would have been avoided had that paper just been thrown out. That’s something we really should have thought about when fashioning this whole concept of recycling.
And so now we have local recycling, something that presumably doesn’t produce a net environmental loss. Should all recycling programs be local, even if that costs more? Is that going to be feasible? Are we better off just throwing paper away, considering that paper biodegrades pretty easily, and most paper today is made from renewable tree farms anyway?
These are tough questions that make the issue of doing the right thing a complicated one. There is what can be done and what will ultimately be done. As the world’s problems become more complicated, we have to remember that there is nothing wrong with taking baby steps to get to the final goal.
In the grand scheme of things, throwing your newspaper in the garbage may be just as environmentally friendly as putting it in a recycling bin. Then again, maybe not – no one has bothered to actually look into it, certainly not those as quick to judge as I was that day.
Imran Syed is the Daily’s editorial page editor. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.