Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Why I Don’t Recycle


I used to recycle religiously. My environmental-scientist roommate helped me learn how to twist off caps, tear off labels, and flatten plastic cartons. We kept our recycling in a big wicker basket, and every other week we would empty the paper and bottles into a bin and drag it to the curb to be picked up, trucked off, sorted, and crushed – remade.

I don’t do that anymore. I throw plastic bottles in with cardboard in with banana peels almost like I don’t believe that the damage we are doing to our planet is irreversible. It’s not that I don’t believe in recycling and not that I don’t want to do it – but the systems that are in place around me simply aren’t set up in a way that makes it possible.

The fact is that recycling as I thought of it in Michigan doesn’t really exist in Honduras. There are no wicker baskets, and definitely no curb-side bins. Instead, at the end of the week, my host dad will drive our bags of trash to the single dumpster that serves our entire hillside community. 

For people who don’t have a vehicle and can’t make the walk down the steep hill with their bags of trash, the street has to do. Throwing garbage in the streets is not a good thing – but for many it’s the only real option. Throwing things away, let alone recycling, isn’t a moral decision, it’s a practical one.

It’s impossible to understand individual behavior without understanding the systems that provoke it, the balance of costs and benefits that always lead people to consider or decline actions.

In the United States, I didn’t recycle because I was a better person than the people who live here in Honduras – I recycled because it was easy, because single-stream recycling and curb-side pick-up tipped the balance of costs and benefits so far towards recycling that one would have to be actively against recycling not to do it.

I could judge Hondurans for not making the same decisions I used to make in the United States – but that would be ignoring the fact that our decisions aren’t actually the same at all.

I don’t recycle here because I can’t recycle here. Because of the lack of any recycling system, because of the way that materials are reused in different ways, no one would blame me. As I realized this, I started to think about other systems, how decisions I think people should be making may not actually be a meaningful option for them.


In Honduras, about 4% of murders result in an arrest, leaving an astonishing 96% impunity rate for homicides. Victims of crimes don’t always report them to the police, witnesses of crimes don’t testify, and dangerous criminals are left on the street.

The answer to this seems obvious – people should report crimes, lawyers should prosecute them, and judges should punish them. Yet Honduras’s justice system is riddled with roadblocks and dangers that generally mean involvement carries a much higher cost than benefit.

How could I tell people here that they need to cooperate with the justice system when doing so means risking death threats for themselves and their families? Witnesses have been shot for cooperating, their names revealed by corrupt police officers. Lawyers have been assassinated for standing up to the wrong people. Bribes and rampant bias mean that the wealthy and powerful are far less likely to be charged with a crime, let alone convicted of it, while the poor have none of these protections.

The fact that Hondurans don’t often bring cases to be prosecuted is not a problem of apathy, of laziness, or of disinterest – it is a structural problem that keeps everyone from equal access to justice. The balance of costs and benefits is warped – the choice to trust a broken system isn’t a meaningful choice.

It works the other way too – the costs of standing up against corruption are high, but the costs of corruption itself might be quite low. Without justice systems that regularly prosecute corruption, the scales are tipped again, leading people who in other situations would follow the rules to decide the benefits of crime are too attractive to ignore.

Context matters. Attaching moral significance to systemic failures too often blames the most vulnerable for their own problems. In the United States, it’s easy to feel moral superiority for doing things – recycling, eating organic, getting a college education, even trusting police officers – that simply aren’t meaningful choices for others.

These decisions aren’t always up to individuals. If we believe that eating organic is important, we need to do more than tell people to do so, we need to invest in making this food cheaper and more accessible. Valuing higher education means changing patterns of costs and benefits so that it’s a real option for students regardless of gender, race, or socioeconomic background. Increasing trust in police means ensuring that their interactions with people of all backgrounds are equally above reproach.

People aren’t always going to make the same decisions as me. Sometimes this is because they disagree with me – they don’t think recycling is important, they’re attracted by the corruption’s apparent benefits. But more often than I realize, there is no real decision for them to make.

I don’t want to say that what is good or what is right should be easy. But what is good should be possible, and it should be possible for everyone. Individual choices matter, but what matters more is the existence of choice in the first place.

That is part of why I get so excited about the work we do here. It is more than throwing a single can in a recycling bin. It is more than throwing a single person in prison. It is a fundamental readjustment of entire systems of benefits and costs, making it easier to do what is good and harder to break the rules – giving everyone the real opportunity to make choices that are better for them and better for our world..  

1 comment:

  1. Great post! Well writen, catchy and such valuable stuff to say. Really loved it. Thanks!