PICTURED: “Yakety Yak — Take it Back!” Ozzy Osbourne and other celebrities participated in this 1991 music video PSA about recycling from the Take It Back Foundation. 

by David Goldstein

“You’re insidious!” my neighbor, Jim Polisini, said with a laugh.

Insidiousness got a bad reputation after the <em>Star Wars</em> franchise gave the name “Darth Sidious” to the character referred to as “The Emperor” in the original trilogy. But even before then, I had never heard environmental outreach methods lampooned as insidious.

Polisini was commenting on the strategy I, and other local recycling coordinators, are using to boost participation rates in the curbside food scrap recycling program. Since adults are harder to influence, we are targeting children. We are making videos and providing other material to teachers, so lessons about the importance of recycling food scraps will be taught in schools. If your child comes home from school one day and starts objecting to you tossing a banana peel in the garbage, you might agree with Polisini.

Since the January launch of curbside food scrap recycling programs in Ventura County, increasing numbers of people are including food scraps in carts previously reserved for just yard clippings and lumber. However, as reported during a conference call last week with facility operators, the amount of food scraps collected through these recycling programs is far less than the amount our waste sort studies tell us is in the garbage. 

To comply with state mandates, reduce climate-changing emissions from rotting garbage in landfills, and enhance soil with mulch and compost, we must facilitate two changes in households throughout Ventura County. First, we must raise participation rates, which is the percentage of people regularly placing food scraps in their organics — formerly “yard waste” — carts. Second, we must boost capture rates, which is the percentage of food collected from participating households.

If you want to be the recycling leader in your household, and not wait for your child to scold you into doing it, you can most easily both become a participant and maximize your home’s capture rate by starting at the point of waste generation. Put a labeled and lidded pail on your kitchen countertop, place a foot-activated flip-top container under your sink, or institute some other system to capture food scraps, separate from other garbage, in the kitchen. Someone in the household will have the unpleasant task of emptying the container into the organics cart regularly, but presumably, someone is already taking out the kitchen garbage, and it includes the same materials.

As for the outreach to children, Ventura County is not alone in implementing this strategy. The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) is about to launch a super agent to win the hearts and minds of young people. It will be a talking turtle named Turner, which you will start to see later this month. What the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles did to popularize the martial arts, this turtle just might do for recycling.

Focusing environmental outreach on children to affect changes in homes is also not a new strategy. Perhaps the most notable example of this strategy occurred in 1991, when cities were deciding whether to implement curbside recycling programs and households were deciding whether and how to separate bottles, cans and paper from other garbage. 

The Take It Back Foundation, led by Stewart Levine and his wife Jolie Jones, daughter of musician and producer Quincy Jones, appealed to children and teens by producing a music video, which had its MTV premier on National Recycling Day, April 10, 1991. In the video, top musical celebrities Paula Abdul, Randy Newman, B.B. King, Ozzy Osbourne, Bette Midler, Stevie Wonder, Kenny Loggins and others rapped and cavorted with Bugs Bunny and other Looney Tunes characters while performing a song called “Yakety Yak, Take it Back.”

The song, based on a 1950s song about rebellious youth, was shown in public service announcements, at school assemblies nationwide and repeatedly in 1,600 AMC movie theaters. With a nearly $300,000 grant from the California Department of Conservation, Take It Back Foundation distributed the video and a teachers’ guide to 15,000 public schools in our state. The words to the song included this memorable chorus:

Don’t be no square, don’t be no chump,

Don’t make this Earth a garbage dump,

This planet screaming, “No more funk!”

There’s no more room for no more junk.

Yakety Yak — Take It Back!”

David Goldstein, an Environmental Resource Analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency, may be reached at 805-658-4312 or david.goldstein@ventura.org.