Recycling, a Solution, or an Excuse?

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Image courtesy of arztsamui at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Garbage is an overwhelming problem for humans. We invent awesome things then, before we know it, we have no use for them and trash them. Recycling has kept some of the garbage we produce from stagnating underneath unnatural ski hills in our cities. Recycling has even turned into a source of revenue for some cities, according to a number of cities’ public relations driven newsletters [1], [2], [3].

When looking into recycling, one can find article after article telling you what to recycle, [4] how much is being recycled, [5] and how much more we should recycle [6]. All this is because, well, of course one should recycle. It really goes without saying. But maybe, just maybe, recycling isn’t the simple planet-saving gesture we think it is.

The Problem with Recycling. How can I say this? Once you make your way past all of the perky infographics about which can to put that wine bottle in you find a number of pretty reputable articles siting pretty reputable statistics that indicate that recycling could be just a bandaid over a real problem. [7] “Even if everyone in America was perfect at recycling everything, it wouldn’t make a dent in the overall flow in waste materials,” says Samantha MacBride, an assistant professor at Baruch College in New York City and the author of “Recycling Reconsidered.”[8]

Recycling is purported to be better off for the world on many levels, one of those is economic. Some people researching the topic point out that landfill space is cheap, so economically recycling has a hard time beating that price point. But then, the point is also made that landfill space is made artificially cheap so people aren’t tempted to dump garbage in their backyards instead. The real issue that most people are concerned with is the impact on the planet. Does recycling end up being better for the earth than dumping something in a landfill? At this point it must be understood that recycling different kinds of items have different impacts. Recycling metals tends to save energy and is easily shown to be more beneficial to the planet than mining and refining the raw material. Recycling most glass , however, is scarcely, if at all more efficient than making more from scratch. One reason for that being that the main ingredient of glass, sand, is plentiful. [9]

The Big Problem. Which brings us back to the root of the problem. Something George Carlin sums up nicely. [10]

Maybe the excitement about recycling is just a cover up for something, particularly affluent and semi-affluent Americans really don’t want to deal with: Overconsumption.[11] It turns out that, while recycling is nice and all, it really just can’t compete with all of the things we buy to begin with. When talking about things people do to assuage middle class guilt, yup, recycling could be one of those. So, since recycling won’t really cover our sins, the solution seems to lie in using less to begin with. Luckily this idea is about as trendy as recycling. There are actually some things that are truly attractive in the idea of ditching it all, buying that RV and touring the continent. Realistically speaking, however, for those of us without mobile IT jobs, I found a few tips.

  1. Take stock of what you have. Unfortunately many lists of ways to reduce consumption of stuff involve some type of taking inventory of your house.  [12] I don’t know about you, but anything that requires a detailed list of all my possessions is a deterrent to action, but the logic is sound. If you know where all of your hole punchers are you won’t buy a new one. Therefore resources won’t have to be used to make that new one, and packaging won’t go to the landfill or the recycle bin when you buy that next new one you don’t need.
  2. Wait 20 minutes, or a week, or a month before making a purchase.  [13] I don’t know how many times I have told this to my kids, especially when they want to buy gum or a noisy toy (even if it is with their own money). But the advice works for adults as well. When you need milk, put it on the list, but if you are wandering past a new kind of health shake on your way to the milk, resist and see if you dream about it over the next week. You don’t need to view every purchase with this much forethought, but I am betting the more often we use this the less junk items and junk food we will buy.
  3. Reuse. Here is where the canvas bags come in.
     [14] The ones I always forget to put in the car, or I get in the car, but don’t take in the store. You should just quit making excuses, or not making excuses, in my case and just get the bags from point A to point B. But I am being unfair; some of you do an awesome job of reusing. You take your reusable bags. You reuse your glass jars to drink from. You get your kids clothes from the neighbors’ teens. Good on ya. We should all do that.

Most people who tell us the facts about recycling wouldn’t tell us not to do it. MacBride puts the information about recycling in perspective. “I think to be an adult and think, ‘ok, my recycling is not really solving the problem’ — you shouldn’t despair over that. Just look at it as a piece of scientific information,” she said. “People get very emotionally upset when they hear these statistics and think they should throw everything in the trash. To me that’s a response a kid would have, not an adult.”[9] The call is not to give up recycling but to remember that recycling should not be revered as a religion or seen as a moral imperative. One is not a better person if one recycles. What makes you a person who is effective in doing what is best for the Earth is understanding that there can be a difference between what seems to be a good thing to do, what feels good, and what has a measurable benefit to our planet. [15]  It is also good to understand that what is best for our planet can change due to different factors.  Michael Munger recalls in his article “Recycling:Can It Be Wrong, When It Feels So Right?” an incident where a university was trying to be responsible with it’s resources. When there was plenty of water available, washing and reusing dishes and napkins made sense for the planet. When water became no longer abundant, continuing on the same path would begin to put stress on an already strained supply of water, so they changed their strategy, much to the consternation of some on campus. [16] Taking this informed stance toward recycling potentially calls for constant vigilance to the world around us. [17]  As humans keep working on making the science and technology around waste better for the earth, we will need to make new adjustments to what we do with our waste. Much can be done. Improvements can be made to recycling itself to make it more efficient. Packaging can be made less damaging for the earth by using less packaging, and making that packaging out of something that can be efficiently recycled. Finally, landfills can be made better for the environment by improving their methane containment and energy producing systems, and making those more widespread.

Of course, if you don’t want to take the time to be vigilant, you always have the option to grab your canvas bag, take your reused glass jar to Starbucks, and hand off that old mower to the guy you don’t know on Craigslist. Reducing and reusing will never go out of style.

 

 

 

  1. Roberson, John. “Solid Waste and Recycling in Wake County.” Wake up Wake County. Wake County, n.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2016. <http://www.wakeupwakecounty.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/01/Wake-County-Solid-Waste.pdf&gt;.
  2. King County Greenworks Newsletter 2003, 42 ed. Web. 1 Feb. 2016. http://your.kingcounty.gov/solidwaste/business/documents/GWvol42.pdf
  3. Hurtado, Allison. “Recycling Makes the City Money, Creates Jobs.” Ahwatukee Foothills News 15 Sept. 2010. Web. 1 Feb. 2016. <http://www.ahwatukee.com/news/article_057a710a-c036-11df-b1d6-001cc4c03286.html&gt;.
  4. Thompson, Helen. “Recycling: You May be Doing it Wrong.” Smithsonian. N.p., Apr. 2014. Web. 1 Feb. 2016. <http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/recycling-you-may-be-doing-it-wrong-180951192/?no-ist&gt;.
  5. “Recycling Facts & Stats.” Keep America Beautiful. Ed. Brenda Pulley. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Feb. 2016. <http://www.kab.org/site/PageServer?pagename=recycling_facts_and_stats&gt;.
  6. “Recycling Facts .” recycle across america. N.p., 2014. Web. 1 Feb. 2016. <http://recycleacrossamerica.org/recycling-facts&gt;.
  7. “Why You are in the Pocket of Big Recycling.” com. N.p., 20 Nov. 2014. Web. 3 Feb. 2016. <http://www.ecothriftyliving.com/2014/11/why-you-are-in-pocket-of-big-recycling.html&gt;.
  8. Dover, Sarah. “Is Recycling Worth It?.” CBS News. N.p., 26 Apr. 2013. Web. 1 Feb. 2016. <http://www.cbsnews.com/news/is-recycling-worth-it/&gt;.
  9. “Does Recycling Really Help the Environment?.” Quora. Ed. Brandon Kuczenski. N.p., Dec. 2014. Web. 1 Feb. 2016. <https://www.quora.com/Does-recycling-really-help-the-environment&gt;.
  10. Carlin, George. “George Carlin Talks About “Stuff”.” . Web. 3 Feb. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MvgN5gCuLac&gt;.
  11. Loki, Reynard. “If Recycling Doesan’t Actually Help the Planet, Then What Should we Do?.” Alternet. N.p., Oct. 2015. Web. 1 Feb. 2016. <http://www.alternet.org/environment/if-recycling-doesnt-actually-help-planet-then-what-should-we-do&gt;.
  12. “Top 10 Ways to Reduce Stuff.” com. N.p., June 2010. Web. 3 Feb. 2016. <http://www.postconsumers.com/education/top-10-ways-to-reduce-stuff/&gt;.
  13. “Use Less Stuff.” Bridging the Gap. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Feb. 2016. <https://www.bridgingthegap.org/using-less-stuff/&gt;.
  14. Minchin, Tim. “Take Your Canvas Bags (Clean Version).” com. Ed. Avital Sykora. N.p., n.d. Web. 3 Feb. 2016. <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QloLVWUu05E&gt;.
  15. Westervelt, Amy. “Can Recycling be Bad for the Environment.” com. N.p., Apr. 2012. Web. 3 Feb. 2016. <http://www.forbes.com/sites/amywestervelt/2012/04/25/can-recycling-be-bad-for-the-environment/#493646132b37&gt;.
  16. Munger, Michael C. “Recycling:Can It Be Wrong, When It Feels So Right?.” Cato-Unbound. N.p., 3 June 2013. Web. 3 Feb. 2016. <http://www.cato-unbound.org/2013/06/03/michael-c-munger/recycling-can-it-be-wrong-when-it-feels-so-right&gt;.
  17. On Point with Tom Ashbrook. NPR. 22 Oct. 2015. Web. 3 Feb. 2016. <http://onpoint.wbur.org/2015/10/22/garbage-recycling-germany-waste-management&gt;.

 

Questions

 

  1. What are your current biases, and why do you think these are important to you? Did your mom make you wash out the soda cans, so now you do the same? Did you never really think about it? Do you think the planet is going to hell in a hand-basket, so everyone should be up in arms about waste? Why?
  2. What do you think are some of the biggest problems we have right now when it comes to waste on our planet?
  3. What do you think we should do with our waste? Are you a fan of recycling? Are you a fan of reusing or reducing? Do you have another approach altogether?
  4. What would it take for our planet to solve the waste problems we have right now?
  5. What would a planet that produces no earth-harming waste look like? How would we live? What would we have to accept, and how would it feel?
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