An economy of stolen recycling bins

Published on 2024-04-08

I've talked about the last place I lived at least once:

Tending your garden on the moral high ground

I was thinking the other day about another thing that happened to me back then and the implications are really interesting, so I thought I'd take the time to write it down.

I live in a city that manages its citizen's trash for them. Every household gets a set of three bins: a black one for trash, a blue one for recycling and a green one for yard waste. It'd be cool if we had a compost program as well but I don't imagine I'd want to give up my compost anyway.

Interestingly, the black bins are considerably smaller than the blue and green ones. Apparently it's supposed to disincentivize waste, or maybe just wasting recyclables. I'd be very interested in seeing if there's any research to support it. the last two places I've lived housed upwards of 7 people who mostly lived independently of one another, and waste real estate had always been a problem.

Anyways, so that's our recycling system.

The crux of the story is this: one day, presumably on the day I dedicate to doing all my chores, I woke up, grabbed the recyclables, and was dumbstruck to find that our recycling bin was gone.

Maybe it's a bit presumptuous to say it was stolen. I suppose it could have somehow gotten lost, but I'm not sure how. They weren't particularly light, so it seems unlikely that it would have blown away. There would have been evidence. I can't imagine why our landlord or the department that handles residuals would have taken it away. I can, however, think of at least one reason why one of our neighbours might have taken it for themself: someone else had taken theirs.

Importantly, this neighbourhood was full of apartments rented by students. Nobody here talked to their neighbours, to my dismay. I talked with the few more family-aged adults every once in a while, but never really to the people my age. In other words, this region was filled with people who didn't know the recycling procedures—particularly, what to do when your recycling bin goes missing.

Importantly, neither did I. I had no idea what to do now that we had no way to turn our recyclables in to the city, and no vehicle to drive them to the facility myself. So, they piled up.

Of course, all the while, there was this lurking, dark thought cowering in the recesses of my mind: I could pay it forward, and steal someone else's recycling bin. Continue the cycle.

There was a pretty good chance I could have gotten away with it. All the recycling bins look the same (where I live now, people, fearful of their reckoning, spray paint their house number on the side to make it really clear). Security systems weren't all that great, and even if they got me on tape, what are the odds they'd actually hunt me down? Especially when they have the option to pay it forward themselves.

Most importantly, it would immediately solve my increasingly dire problem. Or at least, it'd transfer the problem to someone else; someone I have no connection to.

I didn't steal someone else's recycling bin. I never really considered doing it. For that matter, I can't even really prove that someone "paid it forward" to me in the first place. I was just deeply aware that this could be the nature of my neighbourhood: a hundred warring factions in a constant struggle to secure the means to turn their recyclables in to the city. The winners got to live in a waste-free house, while I had to sit in a pile of my own plastic filth. I felt like I was in Liu Cixin's dark forest but for residual management

One day, a new recycling bin showed up on my street corner. I don't know where it came from; I thought about asking the people who lived in the other part of my house, but I didn't really know them all that well. I decided to quit while I was ahead. But I have to wonder.

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