A weekend trip to the town dump can be profoundly edifying. After a week of sorting everything you throw away into separate bins — bottles and cans in one, cardboard and paper in another — hauling it all to the local “transfer station” yourself is a rare satisfaction. The wholly positive American compulsion for recycling builds to a climax there, when cars and pick-ups vie for space at the aligned and labeled dumpsters. Engines are left running when people hop out to enact what’s now a ritual of citizenship. Putting all that detritus into its proper receptacle, side-by-side with neighbors doing likewise, under the approving eye of the hired attendant, has become a source of civic happiness.
In cities, the sorting is mostly private, and single-streaming may mean that separation of materials is less fussy. Yet just by putting blue bins on the sidewalk, neighbors are still displaying their commitment to reuse for the sake of a better planet. In only a few years, recycling — which ideally saves some of the energy involved in making new stuff from scratch — has become a main point of connection that average Americans have with the critical project of lowering the emission of greenhouse gases to stave off global warming.