The recent spate of new recycling programs that target only certain items is beginning to seem a little silly. Whole Foods ( WFMI) has launched a pilot program that collects No. 5 plastic, containers marked with "5" inside the recycling symbol. Ikea and Home Depot ( HD) now take customers' compact fluorescent bulbs for recycling. These corporate green efforts seem helpful and nice in their own right, but taken as a whole they don't add up to an efficient way to recycle things we use in our everyday lives. The stack of theoretical recycling bins and bags I would have to have in my kitchen to take advantage of all of these programs would be absurd. I already have two bins for New York City's curbside recycling, one for paper and cardboard and another for glass, plastic, aluminum and cardboard juice containers. When it comes to plastic and glass, the city only takes bottles and cans. Light bulbs and mirrors are off-limits, as are plastic caps and tubs, like yogurt cups and take-out containers. Whole Foods takes many of the caps and tubs the city rejects. The so-called Gimme 5 effort is a partnership with Organic Valley and Stonyfield Farm, which make products that use these types of containers. I could add a third bin for these containers -- it would fill up fast. While Ikea and Home Depot will recycle compact fluorescent light bulbs, I rarely pass them in my day-to-day travels. The last time I went to Ikea, I left my old lightbulbs on the kitchen counter, forgotten in the flurry of last-minute measurements and toddler chasing. They're still sitting there two weeks later.
New York state recently passed a law that requires large retailers to collect the bags they give to customers and recycle them. I have yet to spot one of these bins in my local grocery store. When I do, I'll start gathering dry-cleaning covers and bags that are too small for anything else -- probably in another plastic bag -- and try to remember to bring them to the supermarket. I return wire hangers to the dry cleaners and Brita water filters to Whole Foods. I can drop off inkjet cartridges at Walgreens ( WAG), Staples ( SPLS), OfficeMax ( OMX) or a local FedEx ( FDX) outlet, or mail them to Hewlett-Packard ( HPQ). I can bring rechargeable and nickel-cadmium batteries to RadioShack ( RSH) or Best Buy ( BBY), but the disposable batteries I use more often. A local environmental lifestyle store takes compact discs. I would need nearly half a dozen bins to recycle those items, and I haven't even mentioned things like computers, televisions and appliances, which you don't toss away every day. I guess I could collect them in one big bin and find the items I need to return when I visit those stores. But if I can't remember my Ikea-bound light bulbs, will I bother to fish them out of a bin crowded with old batteries and yogurt containers? These programs have helped raise awareness and boost recycling rates, but most of these items are still headed to the landfill. To be effective, recycling programs need to be more centralized. Few consumers are going to run around on a Saturday morning dropping batteries off at one store, water filters at another and coat hangers at a third -- unless someone figures out a way to recycle time.