Why Recycle? Sometimes the Necessary is Insufficient

I have been recycling for a long time. At first it was just aluminum cans and glass bottles, especially when there was a deposit to collect. Then plastic grew to dominate the world of packaging. Of course, the process has gotten more sophisticated in the last couple of decades. Remember the 5¢ redemption on glass bottles, ‘mid-twentieth century’? Why, I even remember the milkman collecting the empty glass milk bottles when he delivered our milk when I was a little boy in the late nineteen-forties. But that was re-use, not recycling. I suspect those glass milk bottles, when cracked, chipped, or broken, were just thrown in the trash. But their useful lives had been extended beyond twenty-first century imagination. I sometimes remember little details about my post-WWII childhood better than what I came into this room for a moment ago. But that perspective also gives a sense of what is possible and what is necessary outside the twenty-first century framing of “prosperity.” Today’s consumerism is driven by the high-tech petroleum-based industrial culture of perpetual economic growth and one-use post-consumer waste.

AParallelWorld.com (APW) is a new Website dedicated to helping consumers live a “parallel lifestyle” by buying only ecologically sustainable products and services. Living a parallel strategy can be done now, even though the economic culture would have you think otherwise. While not always obvious, many consumer decisions involve making a ‘mainstream’ or a ‘parallel’ buying choice. Buying organic lettuce, for example, involves avoiding the heavily fossil-fuel based industrial agriculture. Less petroleum inputs such as insecticides, herbicides, synthetic fertilizers, and fuel for giant industrial harvesting machines and long-distance trucking, etc., all contribute to lower carbon emissions. But then the proliferation of plastic packaging of produce, whether organic or not, ups the carbon cost of eating.

Plastic Proliferation

Plastic Proliferation

To be honest, I hate plastic “clam shell” produce containers. Last week, I went to Whole Foods to get some butter lettuce for a salad my wife was to make for the APW holiday reception. Despite its well-deserved “whole paycheck” reputation, I marvel at the diversity of fresh and varied food products from around the world available there. It is the only place in the middle of the Southwest desert where you can pick up some “not previously frozen” fresh Alaskan halibut – just a day out of the sea – if you happen to have that increasingly rare upper middle class income. Many prepared salad ingredients are displayed along an entire isle. “Mixed baby greens,” pre-washed spinach leaves, Romaine hearts, etc., are all neatly packed in plastic containers. Ah, the conveniences afforded the remnants of the upper middle class!

Finally, the recycling of plastic in “progressive” Santa Fe has reached beyond the limits of No. 1 and No. 2 plastic bottles. Now, most numbered plastics can be recycled. Yet, as we are able to recycle more, the proliferation of plastic, plastic-paper combined, and unidentifiable fused materials combinations used in ever more complex packaging systems just accelerates. Ultimately, something is wrong with the whole industrial cycle that creates such a growing need for additional recycling.

Images of wholesome fresh organic food are belied by the carbon cost of the food-presentation fetish of marketing strategies that require more recycling. Increasingly necessary, recycling is yet another carbon emitting industrial process. The proliferation of complex packaging systems matches the expanded technologies for the production of diverse plastic packages themselves. I have noticed more and more plastic packages that have no recycling code at all. Who is exempt and why? Sometimes the recycle triangle with number is so feint and obscurely placed as to suggest an intent that it not be seen. Is the ethic of recycling contributing to the expansion of the growing abundance of “post-consumer” waste by reducing the pressure on overloaded landfills? Perhaps, but something deeper is at play.

In the cultural context of prolific consumption and waste, recycling is the proverbial finger in the dike, hardly holding back the flood of anthropogenic ecological disaster. We could recycle everything and it would not stop global warming before it reached the point of no return from climate catastrophe and social chaos. Paradoxically, recycling is another fossil-fuel dependent industry. Don’t get me wrong. Recycling is absolutely necessary, but it is also absolutely not sufficient. If the parallel strategy really takes hold and works, there should be far less need for recycling.

There is a big difference between “re-use” and “recycle.” Those glass milk bottles in the nineteen-forties were re-used many times before they were probably discarded instead of recycled. Their surface showed the wear of repeated insertion and removal from those old heavy-metal wire baskets during their long life of re-use. Their utility was not wasted on today’s obsession with “single-use.”

It is sort of like the carbon tax we have failed to implement. The cost of producing so much “post-consumer waste” must be accounted for at the point of extraction for manufacture. Otherwise, we are just kidding ourselves. The extraction and burning of fossil-fuels should be taxed at the point of extraction. So should the production of plastic packaging. The revenue generated by a direct tax on carbon energy production – think Exxon-Mobil – should be used to convert energy production to the simplest forms of renewable technologies now available. And part of the increased price should be rebated to those who cannot afford to shop at Whole Foods.

In the same vein, the production of plastic packaging should be taxed at the point where it is prepared for introduction into the commercial environment – the factory. What is most important about consumer waste is that it can only be reduced by constraining its production. If all, or even half, of the butter lettuce is contained in plastic clam-shells, we have lost. In such circumstances, the consumer has little or no choice, and the energy and materials wasted hurry us along to climate catastrophe. The most important thing about recycling is the necessity of reducing its necessity.

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