Miami Beach, Florida, wants to use art to inspire people to recycle, and it’s willing to use taxpayer dollars to get the job done.
In late May the city asked artists to submit bids to build a temporary public art structure that will double as a functional recycling bin on the sands of Miami Beach. The winning artist will get $100,000 to design and build their creation.
“The artwork should function as a useable recycling structure that encourages interaction from the public, by making recycling ‘fun and cool'” reads the city’s solicitation for proposals. The winning project design will “engage visitors and residents with a promotional or Instagrammable moment, while also promoting the city’s resiliency and plastic free initiatives.”
Miami Beach has been a pioneer in anti-plastic policies.
In 2012, the city passed one of the first (albeit partial) straw bans in the nation, prohibiting the distribution or use of plastic straws on beaches and at beachside businesses. In the past two years, the city has banned the sale or use of expanded polystyrene (Styrofoam) citywide, and the distribution of single-use plastic bags at sidewalk cafes. In 2018, Miami Beach expanded the scope of its straw ban to bar the use of the little suckers from marinas, parks, and other city-owned properties.
With these prohibitions in place, the city is now trying to win hearts and minds with its Instagrammable recycling bin. This is not an unprecedented tactic.
In December 2018, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) awarded a $45,000 grant to a New York nonprofit in part to build a turtle-shaped waste receptacle that would be filled with plastic straws collected along the beaches of Long Island Sound.
That at least had a rational relationship to the EPA’s goal of preventing litter from polluting the area. It’s more difficult to see how Miami Beach’s artwork/recycling structure will help the city accomplish its environmental goals.
In its solicitation for bids, the city offers a couple of reasons why it is discouraging the use of single-use plastics: reducing demand for natural resources, reducing greenhouse gases, and preventing litter and debris from damaging wildlife, beaches, and clogging up the city’s drainage system.
But cutting down on plastic use won’t really accomplish the first two of the city’s goals, given that substitutes for single-use plastics—be they paper straws or cloth tote bags—also consume natural resources, while leading to more greenhouse gas emissions.
Encouraging more people to recycle does nothing to prevent litter. So long as a discarded item makes it into a bin, it really doesn’t matter whether that item is then recycled or sent to a landfill. Both prevent trash from polluting natural environments.
Perhaps instead of spending $100,000 on a single (albeit pretty) recycling can, Miami Beach could spend that money on multiple new public trash cans. That might not inspire people quite as much, but it would make it more convenient for them to put their garbage in a bin as opposed to throwing it on the ground.