Sunday, March 02, 2014
To trash, recycle or donate?
Is it better to recycle goods or donate them to organizations that may re-use them? That's essentially what a reader wants to know.
He gives the example of cottage cheese. After he buys a container and finishes eating the cottage cheese, he drops the container in a recycling bin that's picked up each week by the recycling truck. "So," he writes, "is the container used once and then made into something else?"
The reader notes that he volunteers at a local soup kitchen. After everyone has been served, leftover food is often given out in containers -- such as cottage cheese cups -- brought in by volunteers. He assumes that once these leftovers are eaten, the containers likely end up in the trash.
So rather than being used once, recycled and then made into something else, the containers donated to the soup kitchen are discarded.
"Which is better?" the reader asks, pointing out that his question also applies to plastic bags from the grocery store. "Recycle them, or take them to the soup kitchen where they'll be used to hold leftover food, then trashed?"
This question points to a larger issue most of us face when making ethical decisions. Most of the decisions we make don't have to do with choices between stark right and wrong alternatives. Instead, faced with multiple right choices, we're challenged to make the best right choice possible.
Trying to recycle used containers and plastic bags rather than throw them away is a right choice. But so too is donating those containers and bags so they can be used at a soup kitchen.
But there are other choices that can also be made. Many people stockpile plastic containers that they receive from deli counters and re-use them in their own homes to store leftovers. The same is true for plastic bags; some people use them to hold old newspapers that can then be recycled. Or they use the bags to pick up after their dogs when they walk them.
The reader's assumption that soup kitchen customers who take leftovers in used containers or bags will simply trash them may be accurate. But if the soup kitchen has never made an effort to encourage its customers to recycle those containers and bags, it could do so by placing receptacles by the soup kitchen door.
There's no one right choice among the many options the reader and the soup kitchen workers have when it comes to dealing with used containers and plastic bags.
The right thing is to try to find a way to put the used containers and bags to the best use possible. If the reader gives thought to how he might do this, then follows through by recycling or donating these items to the soup kitchen, he should rest easy at night about either choice.
Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business and The Good, the Bad, and Your Business: Choosing Right When Ethical Dilemmas Pull You Apart, is a lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School.
Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin