Carbon Footprints

Greetings from Atlanta.  In two days we start the new semester at our new academic home, the fabulous Emory University.  It’s an honor to be here.  Moving brings all kinds of joys and traumas, like leaving a beloved community back in Virginia (trauma) as well as meeting new grad students here at Emory (joy).  But what is also on my mind a lot these days, as I unpack at least 100 boxes of books, is my horrible carbon footprint.  I am freecycling away as much as I can, which is good.  But I think about the gas people spend to get here to pick up those boxes.  I think about all the energy, literally, that has gone into creating those boxes.  I think about the 95-degree heat that dissuades me from biking to work. So one of the first things I do is learn about recycling in Dekalb County.

It stinks.  The County picks up trash two days a week, will pick up paper one day, and cans another day.  Will pick up yard debris yet another day.  But won’t pick up, for free, glass or cans (or maybe it’s plastic). To be able to recycle everything easily, one has to pay $15 for a bin plus $15 for 100 plastic bags to put things in (on yet another day).  And then $15 for every additional 100 bags.  (And maybe $15 for a spreadsheet to keep track of all this.)  Now, of course I can swing that price, but the public policy nerd in me is outraged.  There is a disincentive to recycle.  A lot of people here, like everywhere, aren’t going to be bothered with this level of complexity and the cost.  It’s cheaper and easier to throw everything away.

Compare that to the program instituted in Austin, Texas, when I lived there a dozen years ago.  The city moved from twice-a-week pick up to once a week, and it started charging people for whatever they threw away that exceeded the bounds of the one big trash can they were provided.  One could buy little stickers to affix on the extra trash bags.  No sticker, no pick up.  Recycling was free though, if I recall correctly, one needed to separate glass from plastic, etc. This gave everybody, yahoos included, incentive to throw away less and recycle and compost more.

Our next home, Andover, MA, was less enlightened but they did make it easy to recycle everything.  Same with Alexandria, VA, where pick up was just one day a week.  On that one day, the same crew would circle around and pick up trash, then recycling, then yard debris, bulk, and brush. This made it easy to recycle.  If it’s Tuesday, just take it to the curb, separating the trash from everything that could be recycled.

So here, in Dekalb County, we have something that is almost worse than nothing.  Trucks head out here for one thing or another four days a week, rather than one, certainly an expense and a carbon nightmare.  There is an extra charge to sign up for full recycling online.  But no penalty to get in my car and drive 20 minutes to do it in person. It costs more to the individual families (but certainly not to the planet or even the county) to recycle than to dump stuff in the landfill.

This is nuts.  My new part-time project is going to be to try to get the Dekalb Board of Commissioners to change this foolish policy.

And then maybe I won’t feel so guilty about all these boxes.

By Noelle McAfee

I am professor of philosophy at Emory University and editor of the Kettering Review. My latest book, Fear of Breakdown: Politics and Psychoanalysis, explores what is behind the upsurge of virulent nationalism and intransigent politics across the world today. My other writings include Democracy and the Political Unconscious; Habermas, Kristeva, and Citizenship; Julia Kristeva; and numerous articles and book chapters. Edited volumes include Standing with the Public: the Humanities and Democratic Practice and a special issue of the philosophy journal Hypatia on feminist engagements in democratic theory. I am also the author of the entry on feminist political philosophy in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and well into my next book project on democratic public life.