The 21-Day Recycling Challenge

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We are creatures of habit. And it doesn’t take long to add a new pattern of behavior to our personal repertoire or overwrite an old one. In fact, many experts believe that it can take anywhere from 21 to 28 days to create a new pattern of behavior and make it stick.

I’m not sure why ‘habit’ connotes something negative. Not all habits are negative or destructive. Some are very good for you — like working out. Or washing your hands before a meal. Or recycling.

Yet many offices and homes have no process in place for recycling — even the easy stuff, like aluminum or paper.

If your office or home environments don’t currently have a system for recycling, now is a fantastic time to turn over a green leaf and develop one. Let’s start by conducting a little trash experiment. We’ll call it the 21-Day Challenge.

Grab several recycling bins or similarly-sized containers. Set them on the floor against a wall in your office kitchen or along a shared hallway. Label each one separately for the types of recyclable materials you want to collect. Place a sign above the bins that explains the challenge and invite the entire office to participate (or family, if you are conducting this experiment at home).

Use the following text if you like:

Join me for a 21-Day Challenge: Starting [Date], deposit your rinsed recyclables in the appropriate bins. At the end of 21 days, we’ll calculate how many pounds of trash we kept out of landfills by recycling. Based on the findings of our experiment, we may decide that it’s time to implement a permanent recycling system in this office.

Other parts of the world have a very different take on waste. If you’ve spent any time in Europe, you’ve probably noted the ubiquity of recycling bins in parks, train stations and many other public spaces. Recycling habits in countries like Germany are a culturally engrained practice and are accepted as a manifestation of responsible modern living. You can’t go more than a block without encountering clean, organized recycling bins. Recycling is so much easier to do when the infrastructure is in place.

All this trash talk reminds me of a story my friend, who spent several years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal, told me. In her remote village, it was common practice to burn or bury (or both) personal garbage. One afternoon, she discovered villagers digging up a small collection of garbage she’d buried in the back of her host family’s house. Much to the villagers’ delight (and my friend’s horror), the group unearthed a plastic container. This same container had arrived in a package from the U.S. weeks earlier filled with cookies. Once the cookies were gone, my friend had no further need for the container. It had served its single purpose and was demoted to waste. Obviously the villagers didn’t agree with her assessment.

I’m not suggesting that we should dig out containers from the neighbor’s trashcan, but I do think we need to take a good, hard look at the lifecycle of waste in America.

Start by getting a sense of the trash you are generating at work or at home. Take the 21-Day Challenge and share your findings!