Outing Ecoslackers

Dear Helena,

My roommate is really lazy about recycling. She eats yogurt every day and just throws the plastic containers in the trash. I then have to dig them out, wash them, and put them in the recycling bin. I’m afraid if I confront her, it’ll seem like I’m judging her and she’ll get angry. But I don’t want to keep washing her damn yogurt containers. Maybe she has a right to make her own choices and I should just leave her alone. Or is there a polite way I can change her behavior? —Garbage Cop

Dear Garbage Cop,

Asking your roommate to recycle a yogurt pot is not like asking her to sell her car and buy a hybrid. You’re not suggesting she part with cash or even give up extreme amounts of her time. All she has to do is rinse her container and take it to the recycling bin, which probably is no more than a few steps away. So don’t hesitate to address her ecoslacker behavior.

That doesn’t mean you should lecture her about global warming. She is doubtlessly aware of it, and that knowledge isn’t changing her behavior. Instead, concentrate on the specific behavior you want to correct.

The best way to tackle an ecoslacker is to “assume ignorance on their part,” says Thomas Kostigen, coauthor of The Green Book: The Everyday Guide to Saving the Planet One Simple Step at a Time. For instance, you could simply tell your roommate, “You can actually put yogurt pots in the recycling.” If she is unaware of this, she’ll be pleased to find this out. If she’s tossing the containers in the trash because she’s lazy, then acting like her behavior is due to simple ignorance allows her to save face.

Jason Voigt, a computational linguist at the University of Chicago, suggests going one step further and feigning ignorance yourself, “so as not to appear self-righteous and judgmental.” Voigt’s neighbors dump wine bottles and plastic milk jugs in the trash can he shares with them. “I’ve resolved to tell them about the recycling bins our landlord puts out back under the pretense I was never informed about them after moving in and only discovered them recently.”

Pussyfooting around the issue like this might seem silly. But a diplomatic approach is best. If you’re too admonitory, says Crissy Trask, author of It’s Easy Being Green: A Handbook for Earth-Friendly Living, “you could inspire a backlash.”

Once you’ve got the attention of the ecoslacker, explain exactly what he or she should do with the item. Often when people trash recyclables, they’re aware the item can be recycled, but it’s too much effort for them to figure out how. Josh Handy, an industrial designer for Method, a manufacturer of ecofriendly home cleaning products, says: “I have a five-second rule. If I can figure out where it goes in five seconds, I do it. If not, it goes in the trash.” So when you confront your roommate, Kostigen advises, “break it down step by step.”

If you’re in your home or workplace, you could also adjust your recycling system so it’s immediately obvious where to put what. If you don’t already have them, create labels to clearly show what can and can’t be recycled. Words are OK, says Handy, but “people are much more visual, and pictures would be better.” Also, make sure your recycling bin is roomy. “Big trash cans really make it easy, so you don’t have to empty a tiny bin every other day,” Handy points out.

Finally, feel comfortable tackling your roommate’s trash faux pas. She’s getting off lightly, compared to some. At Method, Handy says, the penalty for ecoslacking is harsh. “If you get busted throwing away something recyclable, you get shamed. The person who catches you will reach into the trash, pull the thing out, show it to you, put it in the right bin, and then give you a look to make you shrivel up. They may even bring up what you did in front of everyone at the Monday morning meeting.”

Table Manners appears every Wednesday. Have a Table Manners question? Email Helena.