Saturday’s Press Democrat had a dramatic photo on the front for the article “Recycling at a loss.” The photo was of a Redwood Empire Disposal worker walking past several enormous mountains of garbage. The photo caption explained that this was stuff that people had put into their blue recycling cans but is in fact, not recyclable material – the gross stuff of life like diapers, greasy paper towels, rotting food, cat litter and on-and-on – all of this and more had all been tossed into recycling cans and then had to be sorted out by hand.

This photo saddened me on a lot of levels. Sonoma County is an environmentally conscious and forward-thinking community. And yet the photo showed literally mountains of evidence that our community is falling short when it comes to recycling, arguably one of the easiest ways to demonstrate care for the planet. I was also sad because I have a personal connection for believing in recycling: my husband Steve participated in the development of the Unicycler Cat and it’s his cartoon cat that you see on the side of all the garbage trucks.

So I couldn’t help but wonder: why are so many people mindlessly tossing everything into their blue can and not making the effort to separate the garbage from the recyclables?

I think there is some laziness involved. I know have been guilty of that at times. Instead of taking the time to find out how to properly dispose of something, I just want to be rid of it right then and there. “Hey, I’ll just toss it in the recycling can and let them figure it out on the other end.”

But even more than the “I’m too busy to have to think about sorting my trash,” syndrome, I think ignorance is the major reason that people don’t recycle. On a practical level, people need to be educated about how to recycle. And on a more global level, they need to be educated about why they should recycle.

I think the Unicycler Cat has done a great job communicating “single stream recycling” which means that we don’t have to separate newspapers from plastic like we used to, but the downside is that now people think that everything can be tossed into the blue can. There is a lot of confusion about what can be recycled and what can’t. Until I opened the Recycling Guide to do some research for this blog, I certainly didn’t know that crunchy plastic (including Saran Wrap), terra cotta pots, and Styrofoam meat trays are not recyclable but that small appliances like toasters (with the cord removed) are recyclable.

I have always wondered why the trash company didn’t have a list printed on the inside of the lids of each can, telling us what is and isn’t acceptable to put in the recycling and garbage cans. If they did, when faced with the “Is it okay to toss this broken hose into the recycling?” we would know better.

Recycling companies face a major challenge because there aren’t any consequences for not following the “rules.” The Recycling Cops won’t be at the curb handing out tickets if someone carelessly tosses their AA batteries into the blue can.

So the emphasis needs to be on educating us about why small actions make a big difference. Representatives from Redwood Empire Disposal should be taking the Unicycler Cat to every Sonoma County elementary school and holding an assembly about the importance of recycling.

If kids get passionate about the difference they can make by recycling, they can take the message home and educate their parents.  Remember Smokey the Bear? The recycling company’s version should be “Only you can prevent garbage piles!”