What are the blue trash cans for?

I never heard someone actually ask that. But, that might be because up until a few years ago our house was the only one on the block that had any recycling carts. The city provides them if you order them through the Department of Neighborhood Services for free. If you don’t tell them that you want one, then you don’t get one. I actually called a couple of times pretending to be my neighbors and ordered some for them without telling them about it. When we purchased our first rental property, which is right behind our house, one of the first things I did was order recycling carts for it. 

There has been a statewide mandate to recycle in Wisconsin since 1990 and here are the laws pertaining to recycling in the city of Milwaukee where we live:


Full disclosure: I didn’t read more than a couple of sentences of subchapter 2 of the solid waste regulations. I might have missed an exemption or something that would justify not recycling in our inner city neighborhood, but I doubt it. The recycling cart pictured is from our second rental and the cardboard (yes, I realize there is styrofoam mixed in there and I did take it out) is from one of our tenants. I have many thoughts about this, but here are three. 

The first is that recycling is awesome, but it is an additional step. I get why some people wouldn’t do it. You have to be intentional about it and you need to actively choose to participate in recycling. It requires a small amount of extra thought and energy to put certain items in a different location based on what the item is made out of. Much of what happens in the inner city is thoughtless or careless. When the quality of the housing stock is less than subpar, the people living there or even passing through treat the place how it looks. At the other end of the block there are huge piles of trash that no one feels obligated to clean up. Someone using a recycling container rather than throwing the cardboard in the trash or, more commonly here, throwing it on the ground is a sign that small progress is being made. 

The second takeaway is that the cardboard is for a tv stand and some other small furniture items that our tenant bought. He waited to buy them until he felt like he was going to stay in the house for an extended period of time, like years not months. The transient nature of inner city neighborhoods creates a lack of investment in the shared responsibility of all members of the neighborhood to collectively care for one another and make decisions about their own actions while at least taking into consideration the thoughts and feelings of the other members of the community. In other words, you don’t act like an asshole if you plan on staying in your house for awhile. Residential stability is another sign that small progress is being made. 

The third point I want to make is actually something that you don’t see. Or rather, something that you would have no way of knowing by looking at this picture. While finalizing the renovation on that property, the tenant lived in one of the units of the duplex while I completed work on the other. When I would take the trash out of the one being worked on, I would often find cardboard in the garbage cans, and if it wasn’t overly nasty, I would move it to the recycling. This happened maybe five times. Then it stopped. Eventually, the cardboard and other recyclables would be in the correct spot without me having to do anything. I don’t know that I, a 36 year old white man, taught a 65 year old black man anything about recycling, and I don’t think that is really the point. If two people don’t respect one another, there is very little one person can do to convince the other to change their actions. One goal of living here for our family, who looks nothing like any of the other families here, is to develop mutually respectful relationships. That overflowing recycling container that might piss off a neighbor in other towns or cities (I mean, it is overflowing and what’s the deal with the styrofoam?) tells me that progress is being made.