While environmental problems such as polluted oceans and shrinking rain forests may seem impossible to tackle on an individual level, recycling has proven to be a way for homeowners to make the planet a slightly cleaner, healthier place.
Just ask Alysa Dortort, 48, a Cabin John resident who puts bottles, cans, newspapers and junk mail out by the curb in her recycling bins once a week. "It's a little thing I can do to make an impact," Dortort said. "It's easy and convenient and makes me feel personally like I'm helping the environment."
Dortort is far from alone. Visit almost any local neighborhood on trash pickup day and you will see a brightly colored recycling bin sitting alongside the garbage cans. The bins, filled with glass or plastic bottles, newspapers, and aluminum cans, have become a fixture, as common as mailboxes, and we hardly notice them anymore.
It wasn't always this way, as Dortort knows. She recalls that while she was growing up in New Jersey, back around the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, "everything went into the trash." The word recycling as it's known today had no meaning to her; separating certain items from the trash was not done.
"It wasn't at all part of my culture. No one talked about it," she said.
U.S. curbside recycling began in earnest around 20 years ago, said Kate M. Krebs, executive director of the District-based National Recycling Coalition.
"Back then it was unique, now it's standard nationwide," she said.
In part, curbside recycling has become mainstream because local governments promote it as a way to reduce the trash that goes into their crowded landfills. In addition, residents have demanded it as a way to improve the environment, said John Snarr, principal environmental planner for the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
Measuring the participation rate for curbside recycling in the region is difficult. But in many jurisdictions, the rate is well more than 50 percent. For example, a 2004 Prince George's County study of single-family homes found a "bin set-out rate" of 65 percent; an Anne Arundel study that same year found a 73 percent rate. Snarr noted that across the region, apartment building recycling rates are lower than those of single-family homes.
The area has no single regional authority to coordinate residential recycling, so each jurisdiction has somewhat different policies.
For example, the District, which a few years back canceled recycling during its fiscal crisis, now has the most cutting-edge curbside program in the area, Snarr said. This city has been moving to "single stream" collection and processing of recyclables, where all the items are taken in the same large bin, eliminating the need for residents to sort paper in a separate stack or for specialized trucks to come independently to a neighborhood, said Michael Taylor, Washington area director of recycling operations for Recycle America Alliance Inc., a Houston-based company.
"It's the wave of the future for curbside collection," Snarr predicted.
In most of the region's jurisdictions, said Snarr, recycling is required by law for residents, but "no one is putting much effort on enforcement," nor is anyone issuing fines. Instead, local officials "are trying to educate residents and make recycling more convenient," he said.
Another regional trend is the increasing emphasis on recycling electronic equipment. More jurisdictions are moving toward a permanent drop-off site that is open once a week or once a month rather than having a couple of events a year at schools or shopping center parking lots. And in the past five years, more communities have begun to collect mixed paper, including phone books, junk mail and corrugated paper.
"By next year, that will be true of just about every jurisdiction," Snarr said.
Given the high rates of participation, recycling experts generally view existing curbside programs as an environmental success story. But they caution that for several reasons, neither homeowners nor local governments should get complacent on this issue. First, trash output nationally has grown over the same decades that recycling has become common. A 2001 Environmental Protection Agency study found that Americans produce 4.4 pounds of garbage per person daily, an increase of 2.7 pounds per person daily since 1960.
"We are becoming more wasteful," Krebs said, partly because "more stuff comes in layers of packaging."
Additionally, people continue to be confused over what to collect for recycling, which results in lower recycling efforts and higher contamination levels of items set aside for recycling, said Daniel Scott, an environmental studies professor at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
For example, that is sometimes the case for Chevy Chase resident Cheryl Fisher, 46. Fisher knows to set out plastic jugs, cans and newspapers in her green bin for recycling pickup each week. But she is less clear about other items in her house, such as aluminum foil and packaging peanuts. Recently she had a plastic hamburger container and a large plastic plate and cover that contained a birthday cake. She wasn't sure whether either of those should be recycled, so she didn't.
"I didn't take a chance," she said.
Also, recycling still has an image problem, Krebs said. "We haven't figured out how to tell the next generation that it's cool to recycle," she said, recalling how her now-college-age son used to beg her to buy juice boxes or pudding cups and get upset when she refused because they weren't recyclable.
Yet despite the challenges recycling advocates face, there are practical ways to achieve higher curbside recycling rates.
Krebs suggested that local governments provide residents with larger carts and more frequent pickups. She also advocated that recycling be made less of a hassle, particularly for electronic items, which are not collected at the curb.
"My hope for the future is that it will be as easy for consumers to get rid of an old TV or computer as it is to buy one," she said.
Marcelino Cole, section head of the Prince George's County recycling office and former chairman of Council of Governments' recycling committee, said that officials could consider imposing quantity-based garbage collection fees, so that trash be treated as a utility that citizens pay for, the way they are billed for water and electric use.
"If people were charged for trash, they would recycle more," he said. Yet Scott said such fees, which have been implemented in places with serious garbage disposal problems or environmentally progressive attitudes, "have continued to meet strong public resistance in some communities and are not the norm."
Homeowners play an important role as well. Krebs recommended that people who already recycle at home pledge to get two neighbors who don't to begin recycling. A good way to start recycling is to choose one item, such as newspapers, to set aside in a bin each week. In addition, all homeowners can look in their trash and determine whether anything that they now throw away can be recycled. When shopping, they can choose products that are easily recycled, such as plastic bottles with narrow necks or glass food and beverage containers and aluminum or steel cans.
Teaching children the importance of recycling can also make a positive difference. One way to do that is to make recycling easy and automatic for them. That's what Fisher has done for her two children, ages 17 and 12. In the family's kitchen, there are two bins, one for regular trash and one for recyclables. The children know where to put plastic jugs and aluminum cans when those are empty. "They would never put a Coke can in the trash," she said.