A young Canadian who has spent a lot of time in Europe and who now lives in Baltimore asks: "How come your restaurants and bars don't recycle?" This Winnipeger had just been to a pizza shop for lunch and had emptied a bottle of soda down his pipe. He looked around for a blue recycling receptacle and found none.
This happens everywhere he goes. He's a little shocked by it, having grown accustomed to seeing recycling barrels side-by-side with trash cans all over Canada and Europe, even in the smallest towns.
I haven't lost sleep over this topic, but I've thought about it from time to time - every time I stop at a gas station on a road trip and look for a place to dump my trash and my empty bottles and cans. You hardly ever see bins for recyclabes in roadside places.
At a Dunkin Donuts recently, the women behind the counter gave me a blank stare when I asked whether her shop recycled the glass bottles of juice they sell to customers.
Go into any small restaurant, sub shop or most barrooms - you won't see the slightest hint of the recycling conscience.
So, the Canadian has a good question: Why don't these places throw bottles and cans into the city's recycling stream instead of the trash?
Given the amount of glass they generate - beer bottles, wine bottles, water bottles - they should be required to get in the recycling game.
When you think about it, it's crazy to be collecting curbside in residential neighborhoods while letting bartenders, wait staff and customers throw bottles in the trash at saloons, restaurants and carryout shops.
Some bars and restaurants take the trouble to recycle their glass, says Tonya Simmons, Baltimore's recycling coordinator, and she mentioned Fells Point.
But, in my wanderings around the city and suburbs, I see few places that set out separate containers for customers to chuck their bottles and cans and, when you ask if an establishment recycles, the answer is usually no, thank you, come again.
It's too bad because, if bars and restaurants make the effort, the city is willing to collect, says Simmons. With a phone call to her office (410-396-4511), a restaurant or bar can arrange to have weekly collection by a city crew. The city's regular pickups, which occur every two weeks, include commercial establishments.
This is all voluntary, of course.
We don't require recycling by restaurants and bars, which generate a huge amount of glass and plastic.
But, in North Carolina, the General Assembly insisted on it. As of Jan. 1, bars and restaurants that serve alcohol there are required to recycle beverage containers and, according to a report in The Virginian-Pilot, each business is supposed to find a recycling service and have a program in place. They get a one-year exemption if recycling services aren't available.
Rachel Eckert, North Carolina's recycling and green purchasing coordinator - repeat: green-purchasing coordinator! - estimated that each year about 50,000 tons of glass will be kept out of landfills as a result of the new law.
And Ben Sproul, president of the Dare County Restaurant Association, told the Virginian-Pilot that he expected the reduction in trash at his bar and restaurant in Kill Devil Hills to be cut in half. "I want everyone to know that restaurants are excited about doing it," Sproul said. "It's just that we want to do it in a smart manner. ... It's important that we don't make this punitive to restaurants, that we share the burden."
There are costs to doing this, of course, and you would assume that businesses would resist. But that wasn't really the case in Montgomery County 15 years ago, when comprehensive recycling regulations went into effect, says Eileen Kao, the recycling section chief there.
All businesses are required to recycle in Montgomery County, including bars and restaurants. The county works with them to make sure they understand the requirements as well as the consequences of not complying.
It's 2008. A lot of people - and, in some places, a lot of businesses -have figured all this out. It isn't that hard.
It's a matter of separating trash from what can be used again, then having it hauled to the right place. Montgomery County doesn't provide collection of recyclables for businsses. But, Kao points out, the market for recyclable materials is strong right now; some commercial establishments are finding their hauling costs offset by the sale of their recyclables, and some are even coming out ahead on the deal. Making money by recycling - imagine that.
Find Dan Rodricks' column archive and blog at baltimoresun.com/rodricks