"How come there's no recycling bins?"
If you've ever had a friend or relative move to Geraldton, then you've heard these words. And if you've been here longer than 12 months, you've heard them lots.
Each year it seems to be on the agenda of the council to consider kerbside recycling or some other means of doing our part as a city to reduce waste, and every year something else seems to be a little more important.
And that's totally understandable. We're a very practical bunch here in Geraldton. We don't often get overdressed for no reason, we tend to purchase the more practical vehicle than the showy one. And we celebrate the person who can contribute to society in a tangible fashion above the person who is merely philosophising. So perhaps it's been hard to look at the cost benefit analysis of a kerbside recycling program and see that it's a sensible option.
Except there's one MASSIVE factor that has been overlooked. Marketing.
Each year we spend tens of thousands of dollars as a city and countless man (and woman) hours on efforts to promote our city and region to would be emigrants and tourists. And when we spend these dollars we put certain activities into the "marketing" part of the expense column thinking we have a handle on what marketing and promotion is... print, websites, apps on mobile phones that promote Geraldton... you get the picture.
But the truth is, everything we do as a city sends a message to visitors and new comers about Geraldton, about what we care about, and about the flavour of our city. Everything we do, or don't do, is marketing.
Here's a quick example. When you go into an Apple store, and you purchase a new MacBook or iPad, you are given a bag to take the Mac home in that is rather exquisite. It's very modern, looks almost like a back pack, is made from recycled and biodegradable materials, and is extremely robust. You pay with your credit card and the receipt gets emailed to you automatically, eliminating another piece of paper from your life.
When you buy a new iPad from Target, it gets put in a black plastic garbage bag with some sticky tape tying it closed and the receipt taped to the bag.
Nothing wrong with how Target do it. The product is the same at the end of the day. In fact, their way of packaging exemplifies their values - "Cheap but functional". Apple's way of packaging the same product says "We care". I'm sure the accountants that work for Apple must look at the numbers and say "We could save millions of dollars a year just by using cheaper bags". But Apple doesn't let the accountants run the company. It lets the design team run the company. And the design team wants beautiful bags.
Back to recycling. You and I know that Geraldton is by far a greener place to live than Perth, for example. We spend way less time in our cars and traffic, thus cause less CO2 emissions, we have Australia's biggest solar power station in our back yard, a massive and growing wind farm down the road, and a thriving community of farmers and marketers that sell locally grown produce direct to consumers each week at the local markets.
But none of that matters. Because when someone comes and stays in Geraldton for a week, all they see is the glaring omission (in their eyes) of kerbside recycling which they have enjoyed for over a decade, and they see Geraldton as a backwater that doesn't give a rip about the planet's future.
In fact, there are a lot of locals who are unaware of any way to recycle in the city, and they simply say that it's the councils fault that they cannot recycle here yet.
Perhaps it's just excuse making. But the point is that kerbside recycling, for better or worse, has become the country's way of feeling like it's helping. Having the bins says "we care about the planet". Not having the bins says the opposite.
So regardless of whether kerbside recycling makes sense when measured as a cost effective means of recycling, the intangible damage that has been done to Geraldton's image by not having them for the last 10 years is more important.
And if we as a city decide we are not going to have kerbside recycling again, or ever, then we need to put a LOT of effort into explaining to each and every visitor exactly WHAT we are doing instead.
But for my money, if I have to give a 15 minute explanation about what we're doing instead of kerbside recycling bins to every Geraldton visitor I meet, and then engage in a philosophical debate about whether people want to recycle because it makes them feel better or whether they actually care about the welfare of future generations... I'd rather just get the bins.