Down in the Dumps

When it comes to recycling, Las Vegas has that ol’ can’t-do spirit

Las Vegas does a number of things well, and recycling isn’t one of them. The Valley recycles 17.4 percent of its municipal waste; the national average in 2007 was 33.4 percent. Our recycling rate in single-family homes is a pathetic 3.5 percent.

We can’t chalk up our recycling incompetence to being new to the game. Nevada has been trying to recycle—or at least pretending to try to recycle—since 1991, when the state Assembly passed a bill mandating a recycling goal of 25 percent. The bill required cities to establish particular recycling policies based on size. Twenty-five percent. Pretty modest number, right? And seeing that it’s almost 2011, we should be pretty confident two decades into this.

Statewide last year, we hit 20.3 percent, so we’re in the ballpark. That’s just under 700,000 tons of municipal solid waste. Half is metals (mostly ferrous scrap metals). A third is paper (mostly corrugated cardboard). Clark County had been on the upswing in recent years—in 2006 the recycling rate was 15.4; a year later it had risen to 19.4. But in 2009 the figure had dropped to 17.4 percent.

So what, you say? Well, according to the EPA, the national recycling rate, among other benefits, reduces emissions equivalent to taking nearly 40 million cars off the road for a year and saves enough energy to power 13 percent of U.S. homes. Recycling paper saves trees, and trees absorb climate-changing carbon dioxide. Meanwhile, less waste in landfills cuts down on the release of methane, which is 21 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Let’s bring the problem to a place where we can grasp it—our curbside. I’ve seen the guys from Republic Services come by to collect the recycling. I’m pretty good about separating the paper from the aluminum from the bottles into those red, white and blue crates. My garage is small, so it’s a tight squeeze to get everything out; and the recyclers come early, so sometimes I’m just meeting them at the curb. But here’s the thing. I’ve spent all this time carefully sorting stuff out, washing out the bottles—I even used to pull staples out of magazines until I heard that you don’t need to—and these guys just dump every bin into their truck, unsorted, so what difference did it make?

Republic seems to understand that asking earnest recyclers to perform inefficient, irrelevant actions is lousy environmental marketing. The company has a pilot program running in 50,000 households across the Valley that gives residents one large 96-gallon container, instead of the three 12-gallon milk crates we use now. The big container has a lid. It’s a vision of recycling heaven. You just toss everything in. The Republic guys come once a week to collect the recycling, rather than once every other week (which means that, currently, you sometimes forget which week is the right week, and when you miss a week, your little recycling bins overflow, and you just say, Screw it, and throw stuff in with the trash).

Guess what—people in the program are recycling past the 25 percent goal.

There’s another problem in the Valley, too: our numerous apartment and condominium complexes, where recycling is, in the words of Republic Vice President Bob Coyle, “nil.” Apparently, whenever you put a recycling container next to a regular dumpster the recycling containers gets filled with trash. Because people are idiots, presumably.

Republic is trying out a program with Camden Properties to put bins in mail rooms to collect junk mail, and then have custodians take the bins to a locked recycling container on the property grounds. Tenants who wanted to recycle could get their own key, as well. What exactly does it say about us that we have to put recycling bins under lock and key? Maybe we should just clearly tell people what can and can’t be recycled. Let’s keep this thing simple.

Still, hopefully you see the bigger problem here. It’s not really the bins. It’s not really the condos and apartments.

It’s that we’re a bunch of lazy SOBs.

I mean, we can’t even get to 25 percent? And 25 percent, if we got there, is supposed to be impressive, worthy of pats on the back, maybe a rise of a few notches in one of those awful Forbes lists about the best cities?

Look, I don’t want to get too over-the-top here, but I’m thinking of our Greatest Hits. The moon shot. Jazz. The Internet. We built Hoover Dam in half a decade. During a depression. I’m thinking of a sentence that begins (and ends) with “It’s not rocket science.”

We got this or not? It’s time to get past thinking about recycling as some inconvenience, some leftist conspiracy to Take Away Our Rights, or some Nanny State Solution; it’s time to think of recycling simply as something that has to be done, as a kind of admission ticket to the globalized 21st century.

Republic’s Coyle tells me that implementing the large recycling containers across the 510,000 homes in the Valley will take three to five years and cost $80-$90 million—he says the costs won’t result in a rate increase for customers. This is provided that Republic gets its wish and, in addition to increasing recycling pick-up to once a week, can also reduce regular trash pick to once a week. (County commissioners seem to be resisting this idea, but they really shouldn’t—if people start recycling more, the amount of trash they’re discarding should decrease dramatically.)

So, let’s get rolling and get these damn recycling containers across the city. Make things easy for folks, and they might actually start using them. You don’t even need the whole save-the-planet guilt trip. Just get one big bin.

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