Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles about how we can all help our island home. If you know someone who's making a difference in our community, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Sweat dripped from my brow as the sun beat down mercilessly. Where is the southern breeze today? I thought. It had to be 95 degrees that day. The gloves I was wearing began to stick to my hands from the perspiration. People just looked at me like I was nuts. I was standing in front of a group of recycling bins and a trash can at the Agat Mango Festival volunteering with IRecycle. A group of friends I’d met in a recent leadership seminar committed to spending some time with IRecycle to learn more about recycling and to help out the nonprofit's administrator, Peggy Denney, who we knew can always use a helping hand, or two, or three, or a dozen.
“I’ll take that for you, sir,” I told the gentleman as he handed off his Styrofoam container with half-eaten chicken and rib bones. Bamboo sticks are biodegradable, I told myself. Chicken and rib bones go in the compost bin and the Styrofoam and utensils in the trash.
A group of military personnel handed me their trash and watched as I picked up a nearly empty plastic cup of boba tea and ripped off the plastic lid and straw. I lifted the cup close to my face and heard one of the gentlemen whisper to his friend, “Holy cow! Is she going to finish my drink?” He looked at me with disgust and then breathed a small sigh of relief when he saw me toss the cup into the recyclables.
“Don’t worry – just checking to see if the cup is recyclable,” I said, flashing him a smile.
Two preteen girls approached me with a plastic bag containing the remnants of their lunch. They shrugged their shoulders as if to say, “We don’t know what to do with these.”
As I was sorting through their lunch, a lady walked by and threw her corn on the cob in the recyclables bin. But before I could tell her she was throwing it in the wrong bin, she dumped the corn and walked away.
I pulled off the lid and stuck half my body into the red recyclable bin and grabbed the cob of corn and shook my head as I threw it in the correct compost bin.
People watched us as we opened up their food trays, dumped out the compostable materials, food waste, took their plastic utensils and sorted through their trash. A few people smiled and said, “Thank you.”
Others just kind of smirked like we were the crazy ones.
For four hours this went on until our volunteering time was done. By this time, I was tired, and I wondered how in the world Denney does this every weekend for hours on end, often without any help.
The whole experience caused me to reflect on what I learned:
People like the idea of recycling, but most people won’t take 5 seconds to sort trash or look at the bottom of a plastic cup to see if it’s recyclable.
Some people are just lazy. They see the recycle bin, but they throw their nonrecyclable trash anyway or they don’t take the time to read the signs on the bins directing them where to throw their trash.
People aren’t that knowledgeable about what is recyclable on Guam. Just because it is plastic, doesn’t mean it’s recyclable. Just ask Denney. Those numbers on the bottom in the recycling triangle symbol mean something.
Most people don’t like to sort the trash … especially in the hot sun. Let’s face it – it’s a stinky job, but Denney can’t be the only one who does it.
Recycling isn’t something to scoff at.
Many vendors on the island don’t take into account the types of products they use to sell their goods and the amount of trash they contribute to the landfill. Those colorful straws, bulky plastic cups and dome-shaped lids aren’t all recyclable.
Event organizers and island mayors should encourage offering discounts to those vendors who promote recycling by using products that are good for the environment.
Denney is a hero who dedicates countless hours, whether she feels well or not, to do an exhaustive review of trash.
If every family donated four hours of their time just once a year with Denney and IRecycle, not only would our island community be more educated on what’s recyclable and what’s not, we would also be a more conscientious community when it comes to what we’re buying and throwing away at home and in our workplaces. Perhaps this knowledge and experience will result in a greater appreciation for our island and less illegal dumping and a more concerted effort by all in our community to commit to sustainability on a greater level.
Perhaps if we all took a few extra seconds to think about these things or commit to volunteering with IRecycle, it would collectively contribute to making our island a better place. Good happens every day on Guam, thanks to Denney, and thanks to this experience, I’m more committed to making it happen, too.
Mindy Aguon is the CEO and editor-in-chief of The Guam Daily Post and a longtime Guam journalist.