If you’re looking to justify your gloomy worldview, there’s plenty of material at hand.
Some look to the malfeasance of the rich and powerful. Others point to shocking acts of violence in our own community.
Me? I prefer glass.
Such responsible citizens!
I’ve written before about glass recycling and the challenges it presents. Yet that was a essentially hopeful moment, inspired by the re-launch of a glass dropoff program at the ReFresh Project on Broad. Alas, the moment has passed.
I participated happily over the past six months or so, hauling our empty bottles with me when I made groceries, and dutifully placing them in the dumpster. And I felt good about that.
Clearly I wasn’t alone. I noted the dumpster was often near to overflowing. Sometimes I even had to keep the glass in the trunk because there wasn’t any room for it.
Now it seems that program has been discontinued, and I find myself dispirited — but not for the simple reason you might think.
The sharp shards of our own idiocy
As I noted in that previous column, our failure to recycle glass isn’t the end of the world. There are worse things to send to our landfills, and composting is probably a more urgent civic priority.
(This would be a good place to plug the Community Composting Fundraiser at Sidney’s Saloon on Wednesday from 6-9pm; you can also make a tax-deductible contribution to this cause online via In Our Back Yards.)
So I’m not crying much over the fact that I no longer have a convenient place to drop my glass. No, I’m more upset about how this went down and what it all means.
When the dumpster was overflowing, people often left their bottles alongside it, despite signs admonishing them to the contrary. What do you think happened to that stray glass? Inevitably, some of those bottles got broken. Sharp shards of glass in the parking lot created a hazard for vehicle tires and customers in sandals and the employees responsible for keeping the place clean.
I hasten to add that I haven’t spoken to any official representatives about this. I’m an opinion writer, not an investigative journalist! Anyhow, I haven’t even gotten to my point yet, the real reason I’m feeling discouraged just now.
The crux of the matter is this: People still left glass there. The dumpster was gone. But people still left glass. Multiple signs have been erected telling people not to leave glass there. But people are still doing it.
My first inclination was to bemoan our educational system. People can’t read! And that’s real: Something like a fifth of adults in Orleans Parish may lack basic prose literacy skills, according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy.
But then I checked myself. What’s the overlap between those who can’t read and those who make a special effort to recycle glass? Pardon me for sounding classist, but I think not much. My gut instinct says recycling in this city correlates with higher levels of educational attainment. Not only are they educated, I’m going to go further out on a limb and say that these people are at the leading edge of consciousness in our community. They care about the big picture. They care about the consequences of their actions, and they are trying to do the right thing.
Anyhow, people hauling their glass to the grocery are almost certainly literate and capable of reading the posted signs that say, quite clearly, no glass.
Case 1: People aren’t reading the signs. They are capable, but they’re just not reading, despite the fact that the signs are prominent and legible. They are also ignoring the manifest nonverbal “signs” of what’s going on — the broken glass, the general disarray. They see the mess and add to it.
Case 2: People are reading the signs, but they aren’t following the instructions. They’re rebels! Individualists! They think for themselves, and no mere sign can tell them what to do!
Either way, it seems clear that people are not thinking about the consequences of their actions. If they were, we wouldn’t be in this mess.
But hold on there. Didn’t I just praise these people as being conscious citizens? Didn’t I just say that they do, in fact, care about the consequences of their actions?
The long-term consequences of short-term thinking
The only conclusion left is that, although they care, they are not thinking it through. They are thinking only in the short-term. They arrive with a load of glass and the desire to leave it to be recycled, for the common good and the betterment of the planet. They feel good about that. They see the dumpster is gone. They see signs that say no. But they’ll feel better about their consumer habits if they leave the glass there. Perhaps they’ll feel absolved of the guilt they feel for creating waste in the first place.
Hey, I get it. It’s a powerful impulse.
So they do it. They leave the glass behind. They trade a momentary feeling of righteousness against the reality of ruining the whole program. It’s like peeing in the pool. They fail to grasp the long-term consequences of short-term thinking.
This is why we can’t have nice things. Like a functioning ecosystem.
And I ask you, how can we possibly hope to tackle big issues, like climate change or the extinction crisis, if our best and brightest can’t even read a simple sign, follow simple instructions, or come to terms with the long-term consequences of their actions?
Bart Everson is a writer, a photographer, a baker of bread, a husband, a father and a resident of Mid-City. He is a founding member of the Green Party of Louisiana, past president of Friends of Lafitte Greenway, and a participant in New Orleans Lamplight Circle. More at BartEverson.com.