By this point, it’s not unusual to encounter a series of trash receptacles in public places, each with distinct labels, allowing passers-by to sort and separate recyclable from non-recyclable waste. On a college campus, it would be far more surprising if a row of receptacles weren’t standing sentinel at every prominent node; the opportunity to recycle is almost a prerogative. And on a campus like University of California Berkeley, it’s essentially impossible to find anything else. So it’s unlikely that students, faculty or visitors would bat an eyelash at a sight like this: But then, such a display is typical at most college campuses. And increasingly, a variety of receptacles are available at key locations throughout major downtowns—a manifest attempt to divert more waste from landfills.
And there’s the clincher with this series of bins on the Berkeley campus. It’s the middle one that gets me.
Rather than use the phrase “non-recyclable” or the less cumbersome “trash”, (or, as you’re more likely to see among the pretentious quarters of the East Coast, the very non-American “rubbish”), these labels actually refer to the final destination: a landfill. The state, which has some of the most stringent recycling laws in the country, raised the bar for commercial enterprise in the mid 2000s, as part of the Global Warming Solutions Act. This series of laws also mandated that local governments implement their own commercial solid waste recycling programs, for which the City of Berkeley offers a reliably stringent and well-articulated initiative. Recycling laws in Berkeley require all food generating businesses to offer discrete collection for compostable materials. And while a random spot on Berkeley campus doesn’t necessarily constitute a “food generating business”, it should come as no surprise that Cal has taken it on of its own accord.
But this isn’t the only place I saw this trinity of bins. Private restaurants had the same separation, including some in Oakland and other suburbs in the South Bay. Either it’s a state initiative or one that so many municipalities around San Francisco have adopted that it has morphed into the apparent status quo. And every one uses the term: landfill. I personally have no qualms with this: in a state often excoriated by other quarters of the country for being over-regulated (with obvious impacts on the housing market) it’s nice see an approach that seems to rely on friendly persuasion rather than fiat, reminding passers-by that their non-recyclable and non-compostable materials will end up going to a landfill. No doubt some would still consider this approach far too peremptory, but it also shows how careful diction can semantically distinguish an encouraging tone from a bossy one. Given Berkeley’s storied history of activism, this infographic seems about as benign as Woodsy the Anti-Litter Owl.