Thoughts about Recycling

02021-08-18 | Uncategorized | 11 comments

I have been thinking about recycling and big box stores and how the two stories are intertwined. I remembered how I bought vegetables when I lived in Boston in the early 80s. In the morning I would walk to the Greek’s produce store with a bag in hand. He would show me what was fresh that day and sometimes he would explain how to cook a vegetable. He would hand me the vegetables and I would put them in my bag and carry them to my loft. Once or twice I forgot to bring money and he would tell me I could pay him the next day. This process was labor and knowledge intensive. The Greek knew his produce and did all of the work in the store.

Along came the box stores (in the 70s?) and I remember my dad getting excited about the price of something that was in a big store across the city and driving there. These big stores were only possible because of plastic. Food was pre-packaged – weighed, and wrapped in plastic. The stores saved a ton of money by not having to hire knowledgable employees. The jobs became more menial: move stuff onto the floor or work as a cashier. The knowledge requirement was offloaded to the customer. If I didn’t know a vegetable – and there were plenty of veggies I had not seen before – I would ask the Greek and he would explain them to me. If I encounter a vegetable in a big box store I am on my own. (that is another way the internet helped the big stores – now you can look up what you don’t know… but the knowledge problem is still offloaded to the customer)

What was also offloaded was packaging. In the Seventies and Eighties nobody cared about plastic waste. At some point we started recycling – which today is still very limited and only takes care of a tiny amount of the packaging we encounter every day – and that recycling is totally left to the consumer, who can choose not to recycle at all. (recycling can be such a drag – Santa Fe stopped picking up glass a few years ago and I had to drive boxes of bottles to the Buckman Road Recycling Center every few weeks)

I think this is fundamentally wrong. The producer or seller of goods must be made responsible for the packaging they are using. This packaging is the reason the stores make so much money because it eliminates employees and it makes it possible to move very large volume. Ideally the store will change their packaging OR will take back and recycle their own packaging. This would be easy: go to the store with the old packaging and leave with new goods. The stores make such great profit exactly BECAUSE recycling is offloaded to society. It became the responsibility of customers and was paid for, at least in part, by taxes.

The latest step in the big box store development is to employ even less people and make the customer check themselves out. It lowers the price of goods, brings more sales volume, and in turn makes more money for the stockholders.

Perhaps it is the hunter-gatherer in us, but it appears to be very hard for us to turn a deal down. If we can get a vegetable cheaper in a big store we get excited by the savings. Look at that gigantic plastic tub of spinach at Costco! It is less than half of the price of the same amount of spinach at the Coop or the farmers market. Never mind that plastic is choking the oceans, never mind that big box stores employ fewer and fewer people.

We have several different waves colliding here. There is less meaningful work available – the Greek seemed to love his job – and there are fewer stores that survive. People get paid less and therefore NEED the cheaper goods at the big box stores. It’s a circle, a downwards spiral.

Let me know in the comments whether what I wrote rings true for you and if you have an idea how to change for the better.


  1. Will

    I think you hit on two subjects which hit close home to me:

    1. The decline of the craftsman or subject matter expert

    2. Corporate sustainability and responsibility

    Firstly I think we have a big problem with “craftsmen” (non-gender) in the United States and possibly around the world due to the cultural mentality that the only way to succeed is a college degree. I recently spoke on this matter on a podcast. The idea that a college degree = success or happiness is a fallacy. I know plenty of craftsmen whether farmers, butchers or woodworkers who are successful, happier and often times more financial off than a college graduate. Not knocking a college degree as I have one, but it is one of many successful paths that we need to promote.

    Secondly is corporate responsibility in which I think all ears are pinned forward after the latest UN climate report. Environmental responsibility is the talk of the town in major corporations right now along with inclusivity and it is being taken seriously. I run a large corporation and at the top of our shareholders list is to reduce our carbon footprint by 50% or greater in the next 5 years (we talked about this today). So “big corporate” is listening to shareholders, employees and clients. I think you will see a drastic shift in the next 5-10 years.

    • ottmar

      I agree with you on your first point. Regarding the second point I hope you are right. I think some of the problems we are experiencing stem from the fact that shareholders often don’t care HOW a company makes money – as long as they do make money. They don’t feel the responsibility that a single owner or group of owners would feel.

  2. Luna

    Hmmm…Yes it rings a great and important topic.✨

    Ok, so my “solution thoughts” immediately go to Switzerland! Excellent sustainabilty. And most people are in the regular habit of recycling as a normal way of life. Their recycling system is a “polluter-pays system”, where there is an extra tax on trash bags and special stickers based upon the size/weight of your trash bag….. encouraging Less Trash and More Recycling. The Swiss garbage collectors literally go thru and check for stickers on bags and will leave bags in the trash cans without them! Also, there are various neighborhood recycling stations in every neighborhood that have bins for every color glass, batteries, aluminum, tin cans, metal, plastics, and various other things.
    Also, I don’t know all the specifics, but there are several Swiss recycling companies that merge together that create profit for the country and privately as well. The Swiss also implemented an “at-home” pick-up for various recycling items for an extra fee if residents do not want to take their recycling to neighborhood stations—which by the way are fully camera equipped to make sure people put correct items in the correct bins.
    Bigger items needing recycling go to local incineraries, where they pay a fee to burn the non.recycleable items like mattresses, furniture, etc. These burning stations have high quality filters so they do NOT pollute the air AND they use the heat & energy for public buildings such as hospitals and schools. As of 2000, I believe it was, landfills were outlawed in the country, so all big “trash” has to be burned at one of these facilities.
    The Swiss also have a special recycling system just for their newspapers, which are the European size, smaller rectangular shape. They have to be Neatly twined and stacked out on the curb on said pick-up days. ANYTHING not Nearly twined and stacked is given a rejection sticker for a “do over.” No fee is charged directly for this recycling service that I know of, encouraging recycling.

    I think probably the biggest difference that needs addressing for a Long.Term Sustainable Synergistic Solution is overall Cultural Importance. Cultural Importance creates healthy habits of recycling or not, and can put pressure on Box Stores/corporations to operate with more integrity for the planet. This seems to me like the main “issue.” Clearly, Recycling can be a sustainable, profitable, synergistic business as the Swiss so efficiently demonstrate. Recycling doesn’t need to be hard or complicated—just Made a Priority culturally. What I noticed when I lived there was that there were many foreigners not “culturized” in the “Recycle- Everything” habit….in fact many foreigners in CH come from former war-torn, impoverished countries/places where they were/are just grateful to be alive and do not place the same importance on buying a garbage sticker when buying food for their family takes precedence. Then there are others who are perhaps just lazy and don’t want to do so much extra “work” just for garbage because they don’t see the whole picture of Why it’s so important. This kind of ties into why these big box stores are so popular in the first place.

    So most likely, the solution for one country’s Cultural Infratructure will be different than another when it comes to businesses being motivated to take on Recycling as important as importing goods for sale. Somehow, we have to demonstrate How they Can Make Money in the Recycling Business and How that Can Be a Sustainable Income simultaneously helping the environment. If big business is “On Board” with Recycling/Reducing waste, they have ways of influencing large populations of people. This then could shift cultures into new ways of behavior, similar to learning new ways of technology……people upgrade and shift to it all of the time when motivated.✨

  3. Nancy

    Where I live in the US they are horrible about recycling. All trash is picked up by private trash companies, and if you want a bin for recycling you have to pay extra for it. The local recycling center charges for anything like mattresses that you drop off. Needless to say people don’t recycle. When I lived in California we had a bin for trash, one for green waste, and another for recyclable items like glass or paper. We were amazed that no one was worried about this when we moved here. Getting rid of green waste is costly here and a long drive to where it is recycled. People don’t want to do this so they burn their green waste causing more pollution.

    I know I like shopping like you did in Boston. We spend our winters in Mexico and I only buy produce at the local mom and pop markets. I have been going to the same market vendors there for years and they know me. The produce is fresh and delicious and the prices are fair. Most people bring their own bags when they shop. In some places they charge for the bag which I completely approve of. It is such an easy thing to bring your bags with you when you shop. They are much stronger and hold more items, and you are not leaving behind the plastic that will end up in our oceans and landfills.

    Styrofoam is the worst, and yet I still see it being used with takeout food. We need to use recycled paper materials for these cartons. Also, we need to get rid of straws. I see them everywhere when I am walking. Thailand got rid of straws two years ago. We as a country need to start caring about these things. The Big Box stores don’t care and need to be made accountable. Every state needs to take the problem seriously. This is going to require leadership that cares about the environment.

  4. Boris

    Could not agree more. Talking about recycling and having municipalities set their own rules started in the 80s where I grew up. The treatment of rubbish then became more and more outsourced to the consumer, as you described. While it made sense for glass (you had several glass containers all over a town) or separating paper and organic rubbish from plastics, it got more and more complicated. I moved to France two years ago and am still scratching my head as for what qualifies as recycable and not. I also remember how astonished I was that a lot of waste disposal sites had disappeared. However, you then learn that this was mainly because most of the plastics and non-recycable waste is being exported and sent to third-world countries which I think is just wrong. Collection stations for recycable waste are a fine thing but we should also take care of the other waste including, as you wrote, with the producers and sellers.

    • Boris

      Starting with the producers and sellers, I meant to say. What also puzzles me is that, back in the 80s there were discussions in schools on how to avoid waste and clean the environment. Since then, plastic packaging has become MUCH more, not less, so you do wonder what is going on in those companies. I mean, if you buy cookies today every single cookie is wrapped in plastic and the package as a whole comes on top.

      • ottmar

        It’s true. It has become a lot worse. Almost as if people STILL imagine they can become really really rich and then move somewhere where the problems they themselves created do not exist.

  5. Stephen Duros

    Well said. Your story of the Knowledgeable Greek’s produce store reminds me of being at record stores back in the day. You could ask and they would know the answer or have a good musical suggestion to check out..

    And, my Greek grandfather long ago told me, don’t buy feta at the store in those little plastic packages.. go to a Greek restaurant or deli and ask if they would sell you some Greek Feta. He also said there would be a big difference in flavor.

  6. Darby S Martinez

    Your thoughts on this are very interesting and important. It never occurred to me to even ask the big box stores or manufacturer to recycle their packaging. It’s morally, economically and socially responsible.
    Especially since consumers choose not to recycle or reuse.
    Also, you might get a better ‘price’ at a big box store, but the quality is absent! Junk made in China and abroad doesn’t last. Foods are often recalled due to disease, or because workers are using the restroom on the food in the field, or it’s taking 3-5 days to ship to the store. Locally purchased food is healthier and at least you know the growers! It’s picked daily for farmers markets. You can freeze, dry or can the food yourself and know what’s going in it.
    I’m not a fan of big box at all. I try to shop mom and Pop stores. I wish the rest of the world would as well.
    I used to have a gourmet kitchen store where I’d teach classes, and I loved it until Walmart came into town and started snooping around my store and carrying everything that I carried. They essentially ran me out of business. And that was their intent. It’s very difficult for a small business to grow especially in a small town where a big box like that comes in and destroys or crushes those businesses. I used to love my store because I would meet so many people they would teach me things and I would teach them things and you’d get to know things about everybody and enjoy their company. Especially when you were teaching classes.
    But those days are gone with Amazon and Target etc.
    Maybe you should reach out to some of the state representatives and discuss this recycling option. It sounds like a great idea. Make these companies responsible for their own waste at the dump. Make them hire people to sort that waste or pay the fee for somebody to sort it and destroy it properly maybe they’ll learn to be a little bit more eco-friendly.


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