But there's a huge difference between getting a large majority of residents to separate cans and bottles and paper and the proposal now circulating to try to push the recycling level higher in Palo Alto. The initial approach was to provide an opportunity for residents to recycle their household waste in a reasonably convenient manner.
There were serious skeptics, including then-City Manager George Morgan, who derided the notion that anyone would go to the trouble of sorting out their waste stream. He was as surprised as anyone when within months thousands of households were doing so. Other communities quickly followed suit, once it was demonstrated that the public was willing to take an extra step. Curbside-pickup of recycled materials followed in 1978, also a great success in terms of participation.
An earlier generation's effort was the widespread recycling of tin cans during World War II, also voluntary.
What was missing from those proud moments of history is the punitive component that is part of the city's current recycling proposal. Under the plan, there would be a full year of education before any punitive steps kicked in. Then refuse collectors would only check for "egregious" violators who put large amounts of recyclable materials in their black garbage bins, according to the city staff. And there would be several warnings before a "surcharge" was levied or, ultimately, there would be no garbage pickup from the offender. City staff points to other cities that have such ordinances and cite a low incidence of penalties being invoked.
But the overall plan raises serious issues of privacy, individual rights and inappropriate use of "police powers," especially when delegated to a private firm, GreenWaste, and its garbage collectors.
Practically, it raises the question: Why didn't anyone in charge realize that this would be a violation of privacy and rights?
And why didn't anyone realize that including such a provision would jeopardize the entire recycling effort, which falls under the broad mandate of "Zero Waste"? That term in itself is at best a fantasy and at worst a deception, as noted by a number of commentators in the Town Squire forum of the Weekly's community website, www.PaloAltoOnline.com.
Zero Waste is an impossible goal, even spread over more than a decade. And even if it were theoretically possible to reach zero, the cost in terms of dollars and staff time and impact on residents and businesses would be prohibitively high for each smaller-and-smaller increment achieved.
That is not to say that we as a community and society should not strive mightily to be efficient in terms of how we use resources, or how we respect the environment and take actions to mitigate global warming. Or that we should not lobby to require the food industry and its marketing arm to find less wasteful ways of packaging products — to avoid the need to recycle in the first place.
But for a city to come up with an onerous plan to spy on and punish violators of its recycling law, even after much education and repeated warnings, simply undermines both the city's credibility and the acceptability of the entire plan. Our elected and appointed officials should be protecting our privacy and individual rights of free choice, not looking for ways to exercise their police power in the name of a theoretical goal that itself is a sham.
If someone chooses not to recycle, that should be their right as a citizen, as irresponsible as that may be.
From a practical standpoint, even raising this plan in its present form has created a wave of concern and opposition that will be counterproductive to legitimate, well-meaning, urgent efforts to reduce our "carbon footprint" in the face of global warming. Locally, it threatens to be the genesis of a "green backlash."
The correct effort should be one of education, voluntary participation, perhaps some incentives in pricing and rewards, building on the proud community history of recycling that Palo Alto shares with its residents and businesses.
The enforcement facet of the recycling plan should instantly be buried as deep as possible in the city's landfill.