In my 26 years I’ve spent an unusual amount of time taking long road trips, including enough coast-to-coast journeys that I can no longer remember how many times I’ve been out to California and back.
For me, one of the more significant minor pleasures of these adventures is the moment where, pausing at a gas station within some otherwise desolate stretch of the Great Plains, I finally get to throw out the bulging bag of stale fast food scraps and snack wrappers from our last pit stop, two hundred miles ago. It’s almost as much a relief as the bathroom visit that follows; the car feels a little less heavy when I start driving again.
Lately, though, because half of my load typically is recyclable, a nagging question has begun to spoil the pleasure of this unburdening: why don’t gas stations have recycling bins? How can we, as a society, allow them – those gas stations whose premises also contain vast, bright convenience stores stocked largely with recyclable bottles of water and soda – not to have recycling bins?
If you go on a cross-country road trip, you will consume a lot of bottled liquids (water, juice, soda). And, if you’re driving along one of the Interstates, you will go a shockingly long time without seeing a recycling bin in which you might deposit them. You will stop at travel centers that offer not only gas and beverages but showers and laundry machines for long-distance travelers; these will fail to put forth a recycling bin. You will stop at state-funded rest areas that, often, are similarly lacking: this may be the most shameful thing of all, since these attractively landscaped public rest areas exist (unlike gas stations, which operate for profit) to serve the common good and yet are choosing to pollute the earth.
Your car will accumulate more and more empty bottles. Eventually, your car, already packed full with luggage and supplies and perhaps some ski equipment or a bike (depending on the season) and maybe an extra passenger or two, will no longer have room to store these plastic vessels, and you’ll still have a long way to go before your destination. Shamefacedly, you will throw the bottles into a trash bin – a trash bin containing a dozen other plastic water bottles, because everyone else driving along I-80 is a terrestrial organism that needs water to survive, too – and you’ll drive quickly away.
Even when the bottles are recycled, bottled water is, environmentally, a bad idea. Manufacturing plastic bottles and then shipping them hundreds or thousands of miles really just doesn’t make sense in the United States, where the tap water is safe and clean; for production and transport, the American bottled water industry uses about 50 million barrels of oil annually to bring us a product that we could get by turning on a faucet. When I take a road trip, I probably ought just to bring a reusable water bottle and fill it up in gas station bathrooms – except, well, those gas station bathrooms are really, really gross most of the time.
So I drink bottled water when I drive, which is bad enough (driving long distances itself is more than bad enough, part of the reason I’m so desperate to do something green as I refill my tank) – but when I don’t recycle, I also remember that it takes a plastic bottle roughly a thousand years to biodegrade. And I’m not the only one throwing the bottles away; but it’s estimated that only one in five plastic water bottles gets recycled.
You’d think that there would be some law in the United States forcing any establishment that sells plastic bottles to offer its customers an opportunity to recycle them, but there are no national recycling laws in the United States; it’s left up to state and (to an even greater degree) local governments, and it’s hard to say which local government is responsible for a remote gas station beside the Interstate in Nebraska, miles from any real town. The absence of a recycling bin is just one more sign that you are not in a real place but in a place between places, a bare-bones outpost for travelers: no pleasantries, just the necessities.
We don’t yet live in a country that views recycling as absolutely necessary at all times.
A few times, I’ve tried asking the cashier at the gas station’s convenience store to recycle a water bottle for me – assuming that, even if they didn’t bother to put out a bin for customers, they must have some kind of in-store recycling system to dispose of the cardboard boxes in which they receive their merchandise – and each time I have been refused.
However, if you’re ever driving down I-95 through the Mid-Atlantic states (New Jersey through Virginia), you should make sure only to stop at Wawa gas stations, which always provide recycling bins.
I’ve never noticed whether my local gas stations offer recycling. I’ve never needed it except on longer journeys. I hope they do. If not – well, I hope they will choose to soon, or be forced to someday. In the meantime, let’s all do our best to recycle whenever possible.