My family and I traveled to Mexico for part of the Christmas holiday this year; a chance to visit with family and remind ourselves of just how fortunate we are in the United States.
From the back of a pickup, we saw some truly beautiful country. In contrast was a much less picturesque landscape.
Countless roadside dumps full of nonbiodegradable garbage and mountains of plastic bottles litter portions of Mexican highways like coffee stains on a white tablecloth. Without recycling facilities, the more rural cities, such as the ones we visited, are forced either to burn their trash or dump it. Though many people burn toxic garbage in their yards or on the side of the road, most simply hurl it from their cars on their way out of town.
This image of piles of garbage stuck in my head; because of them, I made a promise to be more environmentally conscious about recycling at home.
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Unlike many poorer places in the world, here in the United States we can recycle without having to do much work.
That got me thinking: How many people in Modesto and its outlying cities recycle? And how many people have been, like me, a little less than, shall we say, consistent?
Dennis Schuler works for Gilton Solid Waste, one of two waste management companies serving Modesto and nearby areas. He says the rate of recycling is a complex issue. Mainly, it depends on where you live.
People who are better educated and well-off financially, for instance, tend to recycle more, Schuler said. And areas with a more socioeconomically disadvantaged population also recycle consistently, perhaps because they have an incentive in recovering some of the "advance disposal fees" that we, as consumers, pay for certain things when we buy them.
It's the large group in the middle who need to "buck up" and simply do more.
Despite the fact that many Modestans shirk their responsibility to recycle, there is good news. Stanislaus County meets and even exceeds state-imposed "diversion" rates. At times, that rate gets close to 25 percent of all garbage.
What happens to the other 75 percent? Are there people wearing rubber boots sorting through trash for recyclables? Not necessarily.
Sorting depends on where the garbage comes from. For the most part, it gets sent to Stanislaus Resource Recovery Facility, a waste-to-energy facility near Crows Landing. Some 80 tons a day are burned and converted into electricity. Since 1989, that amounts to around 2.4 billion kilowatt-hours of power.
That's not to say we shouldn't worry about recycling because it'll get recycled anyway. To the contrary, it's always better to recycle so we reduce the number of new things we need and the environmentally dangerous byproducts that accompany making them.
To make an impact on the environment and the rest of the world, we needn't do much more than spend a few seconds each day to separate our trash. The decision to make the world a better place might be a global one, but it is personal as well.
Recycling: It may be the easiest New Year's resolution we can make.
Mello is a teacher in Modesto and a former visiting editor with The Bee. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.