Recycle as a Way of Life by
(247 Stories)

Prompted By Recycling

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I am lucky to live in Newton, which is a very progressive city of about 200,000 people. They have good schools and services. They began a curbside recycling program of newsprint in 1971, just a year after the first Earth Day, followed in 1975 by adding glass and cans to their bi-monthly curbside pick-ups. That program disbanded a few years later. They tried again in 1981 with mandatory paper recycling and always had recycling at their Rumford Avenue site, a collection point to gather all sorts of household items including recyclables, oil and paint cans, light bulbs and the like.

We moved to Newton in 1986. In 1990, 2-stream weekly curbside recycling became mandatory; that is, we bundled our newspaper, and put clean glass and cans (with the labels peeled off) in green containers provided by the city, as seen in the Featured photo. I still keep that container in my home, as a convenient spot for all recyclables on their way to the big dumpster in my garage.

In 2009, the city adopted single stream recycling and all households got the large, green bin (as well as a blue bin for trash). Now we can mix all forms of paper, cardboard (I have to keep reminding my husband about the toilet paper rolls), as well as glass, plastic, aluminum. Though everything must be washed, it no longer has to be separated. I am careful to remove staples before I throw away old groups of paper, or bags that come from delivery services or the pharmacy.

With all the takeout we’ve eaten this year, there have been several news articles about what is and isn’t recyclable. First, everything must be CLEAN. We can’t have food clinging to the side of the container. That can be difficult with greasy food. Then I read that some of the black containers, even with the recycling logo, aren’t really (they have different numbers in the center and companies don’t really want them; just the clear plastic). So this is a point of confusion. I used to recycle the take-out pizza box, but realized that was not OK due to the grease on the bottom.

And now that China won’t take our waste material, is has become a dilemma. We want to do what is right for the environment by not adding more waste, but where is all this waste going, how is it being processed, does the processing add more pollution to the environment? The solution isn’t as simple as it used to be and I don’t necessarily feel as virtuous as I once did.

Nevertheless, I am grateful that Newton remains such a progressive community and continues to do it’s part to try to solve these looming problems.


Profile photo of Betsy Pfau Betsy Pfau
Retired from software sales long ago, two grown children. Theater major in college. Singer still, arts lover, involved in art museums locally (Greater Boston area). Originally from Detroit area.

Characterizations: been there, moving, right on!, well written


  1. John Shutkin says:

    You — and Newton — are long-time, dedicated recyclers, and I really enjoyed hearing your mutual recycling history. As I note in my story, I now live in similarly-minded Bedford, and, while I suspect it also has a long recycling history, I do not know and am still catching up from a number of years in a retrograde Wisconsin town. That said, I doubt Bedford can top Newton in recycling (or probably football), with Newton having started way back in 1971.

    Also, thank you for sharing your own dilemmas and confusions about recycling issues. It is so nice to know that, even if one tries to have one’s heart in the right place, this stuff is complicated, too — if, perhaps, not quite so complicated as bad people making good art, as we explored last week.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Thank you, John. Until I read those articles this winter, I threw everything with the recycle symbol in the bin. I didn’t know it was so complicated, but I guess it is. Live and learn.

  2. Brava Betsy & Newton, it’s easier when municipalities do the right thing. And bravo to the stores who now bag our stuff in paper rather than in plastic.

    Since Covid with all the Amazon deliveries we’ve all been getting I’ve become a whiz with my box cutter, breaking down the cartons before putting them out for recycling! Who knew the skills we’d learn by necessity!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      You’ve reminded me that Newton has also implemented a ban on plastic bags. We either bring our own bags to ANY store (even stores like Bloomingdales) or get charged 50 cents per bag that is supplied (usually at the grocery store). Yes, a very progressive community. Sometimes I pop in for one item, so don’t bring my own reusable bags, but wind up buying more things and am stuck. Oh well…it is great not to see that trash flying around any longer, but I used to reuse my plastic bags for icky trash before I threw it away. But I DO understand that plastic never decomposes, so that is why is must go.

  3. Khati Hendry says:

    Keeping up with the local recycling do’s and don’t’s can be a real challenge–it seems they are different everywhere, and if you mix the wrong things in, it can make the load unusable. But it helps when there are strong local supports that make it easy. And after a while, once you get in the habit, it becomes really upsetting when you can’t find a way to recycle something.

  4. Suzy says:

    The first thing I noticed was that the recycling container in your featured image has a big crack down the side. But then I read that Newton no longer uses those containers, they now have the large bins with wheels (which is what we have too). I agree with you that it is confusing when the rules change about what is recyclable. We were recently told that shredded paper is not recyclable, we have to put it in the garbage bin, and it hurts me to do that. Oh well, we do the best we can! Thanks for your take on recycling.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Yes, Suzy, that old cracked bin is just used inside my house for moving recyclables from the kitchen area to the garage (down a flight of steps). It is more convenient than carrying the stuff any other way.

      Sorry to learn about shredded paper. I just learned that Staples will shred paper at the cost of $1/pound. While home alone before coming to the Vineyard, I did a massive cleaning of my study and needed to shred 7 pounds of paper (last year I shredded less by hand, standing over the large bin with a scissors; I didn’t want to just recycle anything that had a bank account number on it, so made sure the number couldn’t be pieced together). This was an even larger project. It took me several days, but I was really pleased with the final product. But I still rip up certain items. Like you, I’d be very unhappy if I couldn’t recycle that paper.

  5. Kudos for your diligence, Betsy. I think it becomes second nature. And absolutely re CLEAN recyclables. I know that all sorts of plastic bottles are labeled as recyclable, including laundry detergents, dishwasher soap, etc. No one has convinced me that it’s possible to get them thoroughly rinsed; seems a cruel hoax. As for pizza boxes: yes, it’s true; BUT: that’s only the box bottom; rip the top off and recycle it. Final word: careful if you move to the Hudson Valley. In our neck of the woods the green barrel is trash and the blue barrel is recyclables.

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    Where I live (Evanston Illinois) we have similar rules and services. I try my best but still find the labeling of some plastics confusing. We often end up worrying about putting things into recycling that aren’t really recyclable. And when. I learned that less than 10% of recycling is actually recycled, I despair.

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      I agree, Laurie. The rules are confusing and seem to change on us. I, too, worry that much of the plastic that I recycle will not actually be reused, certainly during the pandemic when we brought in takeout so often and our bins were overflowing. Very difficult.

  7. A great history of recycling, Betsy! I think Newton has used its affluence to set an excellent example. And I had no idea that China was taking our waste. I’m guessing that they sent it right back to us in the form of profit and bad recycled plastic. What a world!

    • Betsy Pfau says:

      Newton has affluent sections, but is really a mixed community, which is one of the things I like about it. It is just socially very progressive and does lead the way (it is a sanctuary city, for example). I think you are correct about China, Charles. We get all our plastic junk back, made poorly in China!

  8. Yes, I think affluence was a poor choice but it sits in a culture-rich community, which lends much to its ability to model best practices in a bunch of areas.

  9. Jeff Gerken says:

    Good for you, and good for the town of Newton, Betsy! Oh how I wish we lived in a place with the politics of eastern Massachusetts, but with the weather (and housing prices) of southeastern North Carolina.


    Out town of Leland, a suburb across the river from Wilmington, NC, occasionally tries to do the right thing in various areas, but gets enough flak from residents, who want all of the services but don’t want to pay for any of them, that the good intentions have to be abandoned.

    When we lived in suburb of Columbus, Ohio, we did not have curbside recycling, but we religiously collected all our recyclables and periodically took them to centralized recycling bins, often located at fire stations or in the parking lots of large grocery stores. The biggest problem of that approach was the difficulty finding a location where all the bins were not already filled to the brim.

    When we moved to Leland, the town had both curbside recycling and a vegetative debris collection facility. The curbside recycling was every other week, so it was necessary to keep track of exactly which Fridays were or were not recycling days. The vegetative debris site was only three mornings a week, but fortunately one of those was Saturday, so it was possible for those of us who work for a living to use it.

    A couple of years ago, however, the town decided it had to close the vegetative debris site. That, of course, resulted in less considerate folks just hauling their debris to the nearest empty lot or secluded roadside and dumping it. Then, about a year ago, they decided that they would only do the curbside recycling once a month, on the second Friday. For us, that means that in months with five Fridays, our recycling bin is completely filled and I have to haul the excess to a county recycling location. The latest iteration is that we can contract separately and individually with the trash/recycling company for biweekly pickup, for a monthly charge.

    As the former chair of the board of trustees of our local water and sewage company, I became aware of the problem of “flushable wipes”. Yes, these products will go down your toilet and through the pipes to the wastewater treatment plant. They are not, however, “disposable”. They do not get chopped up in the process of sewage treatment, and instead collect on the filters, where some poor schlub was to rake them off several times a day and put them into containers for disposal in a landfill. So if you really need that little bit of extra cleansing, just wet a Kleenex, use that, and then flush it with the toilet paper and other stuff. The Kleenex (I use the term in the generic sense) will fall apart like toilet paper, but not quite as quickly.

    That’s the end of that rant.

  10. Jeff Gerken says:

    Also, kudos for using re-usable bags.

    An anecdote: Kaua’i outlawed plastic grocery bags about ten years ago. (June owns condos on Kaua’i, so we are very familiar with that island/county.) We were checking out of a Publix grocery in Nashville one evening, when we commented on their tendency to put each item into a separate bag. I noted that we didn’t need that many bags, and that plastic bags were illegal on Kaua’i, to which our cashier responded “That sounds like communism to me!”

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