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D.C. Sierra Club Dives Into Dumpsters To Enforce Recycling

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A Sierra Club volunteer peeks into trash bags for identifying information that would indicate who's recycling and who's not.
Jessica Gould
A Sierra Club volunteer peeks into trash bags for identifying information that would indicate who's recycling and who's not.

It may be hard to take him seriously, but Bergen says he's always been a bit obsessed with garbage. He's that guy who rummaged through his roommate's trash in search of recyclables.

"I don't like the idea of resources being put into a landfill when they could be put into production, back into the business cycle," he says.

Now Bergen is channeling his passion into policy enforcement. Under city regulations, retailers are required to recycle bottles, cans and paper. So every couple of months or so, members of the D.C. chapter of the Sierra Club descend on city streets to find out who's naughty and who's nice to the environment.

And that can often mean dumpster diving. "We're going to go through these bags and see if they're recycling or not," Bergen says of the trash surrounding him. "If we find anything in there that should be recycled and hasn't been, we will take a picture as evidence."

Sierra Club recycling chair Lauren Elasik says the goal isn't to shame local businesses, but to help them behave better. So they look for identifying marks, like corporate logos or mailing addresses, in the garbage.

"We would like to work with them to notify them that this is the law," she says. "And really follow up and let them know we mean business. Perhaps we might have to speak with the authorities."

Adds the club's conservation chair, Jim Dougherty: "Not only are they breaking the law when they don't recycle, they're committing an offense against the public and Mother Nature."

After a few hours, club members have uncovered some good actors to reward, as well as some bad apples to remind of the regulations.

But right now, local chapter chair Gwyn Jones says there's only one thing left to do: "Take a shower."

Dougherty says he'd rather save the water.

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