October 01, 2012

Recycling is Good — Recycling is Bogus

Earlier this month I made the weekly drop-off at the recycling bins in town. While tossing the wine bottles into the "Clear and green glass" bin, I looked through the porthole and saw . . . a bunch of plastic water bottles. Like somebody could not read G-L-A-S-S.

But I'm sure that whoever did it felt virtuous about recycling, so virtuous that they did not have to even think about whether you can, in fact, recycle plastic bottles hereabouts. (You cannot, although I know that some places accept them.)

(When I taught a university composition class focused on environmental issues, early student writing would focus on recycling ("recycling is good") and riding bicycles — even though almost none of them rode a bicycle to school. But they knew how to recycle the platitudes of "green" virtue.)

When the paper-recycling stream is dirty, it raises costs at the mill — which in this case led to bankruptcy and thus further narrowing of the already narrow profit margin for recycling paper.

On the other hand, Denver Post reporter Aldo Svaldi does not explain how some recyclers can ask that shredded paper be bagged. Who removes the bags?

A university blogger (universities often try to be "green") explains the obvious:
But while higher recycling or diversion rates are generally better than low ones, that "conventional wisdom" kind of misses the point.  Recycling is good to the extent that it reduces the solid waste stream -- converts a portion of what otherwise would have been waste into a resource. 

But an individual or an institution can only reduce its solid waste output just so much without also reducing its solid stuff consumption.  Think about it -- however much stuff you buy, it all goes one of three places: waste, recycling, or storage.  For most of us, storage capacity is (in practical terms) fixed, so once that fills up the sum of waste out and recycling out is pretty much equal to the amount of stuff consumed.  We want to recycle as much of what we buy as possible, but we should want more to reduce the amount of stuff that we buy.  As individuals.  As institutions.
So, yes, recycling is good. It works well with metals (just ask the people stealing copper, brass, and bronze), pretty well with paper when the market is right . . . glass is still sort of iffy, I think. Plastic, I don't know, I wonder where all the bags dropped at the supermarket actually go.

But the real point is how much you buy (particularly packaging materials) in the first place.

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