The (Local) Politics of Recycling by
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Prompted By Recycling

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One of my favorite adages is: “To a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

This adage really applies to so many situations.  And, as a political junkie, I would amend it to read: “To a political junkie, everything looks like a political act.”  I certainly feel this applies to COVID-related issues such as wearing a mask (or not) and getting vaccinated (or not).  And, at least based on my own geographic history, it certainly applies to recycling. Let me set this out.

In 2001, I moved from Manhattan to the Connecticut suburbs.  In particular, one of the tony little towns in Fairfield County where, traditionally, genteel, patrician, non-crazy Republicans like the Bushes lived.  (Remember when they even existed?)   Although there were recycling rules in place where we lived — Connecticut is, after all, “The Land of Steady Habits” —  they were pretty basic and casually enforced, if at all.  The sense was, “Well, it would probably be nice if you separated your trash and recycled, but really, sport, it’s all up to you, isn’t it?  Don’t trouble yourself too much.”  Laissez-faire capitalism at its best — or worst.  So my wife and I dutifully recycled, but I have no idea what happened after the trash was taken away from the curb.  And, as we lived in a very small townhouse complex, I know that we were the exception and not the rule there; none of the other three owners ever bothered to separate their trash per the rules. And I also know that two of the three others were Republicans.  (The third was a divorced guy and all I really knew about him was that he was a total slob.)

We moved to a beautiful house in a beautiful little town called River Hills — technically, a “village” — just north of Milwaukee in 2010 when I took a new job out there.  Here it is (one’s real estate dollars go a lot further in Wisconsin than Connecticut):

Beautiful as it was, had we known the politics in River Hills, we likely would not have moved there.  We learned that we were virtually the only Democrats in the whole village, and I one of the only Jews.  (The only Blacks who lived there played for the Milwaukee Bucks and had huge, gated estates.) River Hills voted overwhelmingly Republican, and I do not mean “Republican” in the cozy Connecticut sense of moderate fiscal conservatives/social liberals.  We are talking about Scott Walker and Ron Johnson and other fire-breathing crazy Republicans.

Because River Hills was in Milwaukee County, there were recycling rules —  but in theory only.  All the trash bins we were given were identical and, when visiting neighbors for dinner (and avoiding political discussions, if at all possible), I could not help but notice that not only did they not separate their trash, but they seemed to feel that doing so would have been an act of political treason.  Moreover, when I saw the garbage trucks come for pick-up each week, I saw that, regardless of the bins used, everything was thrown into the same compartment in one truck.

I asked a friend of mine who was a columnist for a local newspaper if he was aware of this open disdain for the recycling rules and, if so, shouldn’t he write a story about it?  He laughed and said that such a story would be “about as newsworthy as a story about Al Capone not paying his taxes.”  I pointed out that Capone was eventually nailed for tax evasion, but he quickly rejoined, “Yeah; but Eliot Ness doesn’t live in River Hills.”  Touche!

In 2015, we were able to relocate to Bedford, a small town outside of Boston, so I could work in my firm’s nearby Lexington office.  The move was primarily motivated by our desire to be closer to family and friends (and, of course, Dunkin’ and the Red Sox), but living in a political environment far more in tune with our own views was also a significant consideration. One of the things we love about Bedford is that its politics are deep blue, as one would expect of a small New England town. (Biden beat Trump by the sort of huge margin that the Republicans would win by in River Hills.)  Indeed, we still have annual town meetings to decide important issues and do not have a mayor but, rather, five “selectmen” — though, unsurprisingly, at our town meeting last year, we overwhelmingly voted to change the term “selectmen” in the town charter to the gender-neutral “select board.”

As one would also expect, Bedford has recycling rules and takes them very seriously.  We now have separately colored bins and a very clear list — which is constantly being refined —  as to what is and is not a “recyclable”:


Bins and (some of) the rules.  The blue bin is for the recyclables.

And when the bins are picked up every week, they go into entirely separate trucks that arrive at different times.  And, as of last year, we even have composting bins and weekly pick-ups.  Beyond that, we have special rules and special days for the disposition of such non-conforming items as appliances, computers and “hazardous waste.” Most importantly, as far as I can tell, virtually everybody believes in and plays by the recycling rules.

In short, this is a very environmentally-conscious town and this is exactly what one would expect given its politics. Eliot Ness could happily live here.

Profile photo of John Shutkin John Shutkin

Characterizations: funny, well written


  1. Betsy Pfau says:

    Glad you came to the very blue Bay State, John. We, clearly, are more in line with your choices, both political and recycling-wise. But how interesting to note that those not of your persuasion are also not interesting in recycling. As I think about it, I guess it conforms with not believing in climate change, wishes to save the planet, and the likes. Mores the pity. I know it’s a cliche, but on saving the planet, we really are “all in this together”.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Betsy; it is so great to be here — for many reasons. And you raise a good point about the anti-recycling folks: why should they be opposed? Unfortunately, I think the main answer is that it is so symptomatic of the tribal “we vs. they” mentality that so infects all of politics today. (And, of course, “they” is dead wrong.)

  2. Touche John!
    I too am conscientious about putting everything in the right recycling bin, but now you have me wondering what happens after those bins are emptied and the stuff carted away?

    At least most stores where I shop in CT and NY are no longer bagging goods in plastic!

  3. O tempora o mores! Well said, John. As someone who has lived here and there I, too, have seen much. And have not seen much. I guess the reality is that once it’s out of our hands it’s out of our hands.

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    Sounds like you found trouble right there in River City, er…Hills. So sorry to hear the on-the-ground reports about such toxic environments in more ways than one. They will be the “late adopters”, and kudos to all those on the forefront. The repartee with the journalist was amusing, if sad. Good story, lots of work to be done. The easier it is made to do the right thing systemically (e.g. trucks that actually separate the garbage! No plastic bags in stores etc), the sooner the laggards will be brought into the light.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Great line about “River City,” Khati. (And how did you know I was in “Music Man” in high school?) And I agree with you about making things easier and easier on the consumers (i.e., us). That is exactly what happened with computers and yet I remember years ago when we were all warned that we would have to learn Fortan to work on them.

  5. Marian says:

    Almost creepy, John, the way your story echoes the politics in mine, and with a reference to a mobster, to boot. I could see why you were eager to leave River Hills, and it’s good to know that your current town gets it in terms of the environment. Every high school must have done “Music Man.” I was in it as well.

  6. Suzy says:

    John, it’s wonderful that you have lived in so many different places and thus could give us a report on how each one dealt (or didn’t deal) with recycling. It’s hard to understand how people could be opposed to it, although there are many things about people’s political views that I can’t understand.

    Anyway, thanks for a great story. As to your featured image, do we really want to recycle politicians? Wouldn’t it be better to throw most of them in the garbage and start over?

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Suzy. Unfortunately, we see examples every day of people being opposed to things that would benefit them. (Did you ever read “What’s the Matter with Kansas”?)

      And you raise an excellent point about the featured image. In fact, I had the exact same reaction when I chose it, but decided it was nonetheless a sufficiently apt image to use for this prompt. Still, there are an awful lot of politicians out there I just want to hit the “delete” button on.

  7. Marian says:

    No, I wasn’t Marcellus Washburn (great role, I didn’t imagine you in it). I played Eulalie McKecknie Shinn, the mayor’s wife, and afterward always had a soft spot for Hermione Gingold. My favorite part was being dressed as the Statue of Liberty, singing “Columbia the Gem of the Ocean,” and being startled by a firecracker. Although, when the director said “Marian,” the girl playing the lead and I would both respond.

  8. Laurie Levy says:

    I’m happy that you and I live in our blue bubbles where citizens do their best to recycle, but I despair about places like River Hills where recycling is on par with not wearing masks or getting vaccinated. Why these are political statements is beyond me.

    • John Shutkin says:

      Of course, Laurie, I share your despair. And a certain part of me wishes that these absurd political positions only harmed the people who made them. But that is like being on a plane with someone you hated and wishing that only his side of the plane crashed.

  9. Loved this short history of relocation and recycling, John. I was surprised that the columnist wouldn’t pick up on your pitch, though. As for Capone v recycling, that was then; this is now. Bedford is a wonderful town, and close to my former home. Bedford airport, Dunkin’ Donuts, and the Sox, huh? Fuh cryin’ out loud!

    • John Shutkin says:

      Thanks, Charles. I imagine part of my friend’s motivation was knowing that he would only tick off all the powerful River Hillbillies.

      And you do know your Bedfahd (as I am learning how to say it).

  10. The accent is a basic paht of the community. You master that, yurvon the way home.

  11. Mister Ed says:

    What a great story, John! Too bad that saving the planet is such a partisan and divisive issue.

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