Reporter's Notebook

Undercover: March 2019

The story behind our cover story on the recycling conundrum 


Illustra­tion by
Shaw Nielsen

sketches of the March 2019 cover

The seed for our cover story on recycling was planted in December, when Hannah Debelius, AU sustainability manger, spoke at our division meeting. Held on the first Monday of the month, the meetings can be a little . . . rough. But when Hannah started taking about the university's sustainability efforts—and how most people, while well-intentioned, get recycling all wrong—our ears perked up.

We started tallying all the things we toss in the blue bin that actually belong in the trash: straws, Ziploc bags, paper and plastic coffee cups, bottle caps, pizza boxes. Complicating matters is the fact that the Domino's box might be recylcable in your city but not in ours. How could we be so earnest in our efforts to reduce, resuse, recycle—and yet so off the mark? And why is recycling so damn complicated?

With that, a story was born.

Our new staff writer, Andrew Erickson, who comes to American from the Columbus Disptach, dug into the story with the energy and doggedness of a former beat reporter. Every morning, he'd drop a new piece of (slightly depressing) knowledge on us: Did you know Americans use 500 million plastic straws every day—enough to fill 125 school buses?

After playing around with several ideas, we settled on exploring the recylcing conundrum through the nearly-universal experience of drinking coffee. Sixty-four percent of Americans enjoy at least one cuppa joe each day (we're among them—how do you think we get through those early morning meetings?). We wondered how many of those coffee lovers place their paper coffee cups, plastic straws, empty jugs of creamer, and Starbucks Frappuccino glass bottles in the wrong bin.

We handed off Andrew's stats to Shaw Nielsen, a talented artist whose fun, colorful illustrations have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and more. Shaw created two vignettes to accompany Andrew's story: a bustling coffee shop scene and one with a decidedly more chill vibe (can you spot the cat enjoying a morning joe?) set in a kitchen. 

When it came to the cover, Shaw played around with the recycling symbol and also gave us a lighthearted sketch of a woman tossing different components of  her coffee—a cup and lid here, a straw and stopper there—into a plethora of bins, all bearing that iconic triangular mark. It was as perfect as that first sip of dark roast.

We hope you enjoy Andrew's story and Shaw's illustrations as much as we enjoyed putting them together. And we hope you'll think a little more carefully about what, exactly, belongs in the blue bin.