Recycling Redux: Can we Recycle Profligate Consumerism?

I have been recycling for a long time. Of course, the process has gotten more sophisticated in the last couple of decades. Some will remember the 5¢ redemption on glass bottles, mid-twentieth century. When I was a little boy in the late nineteen-forties, “recycling” had not yet entered the public lexicon. I remember the milkman collecting the empty glass milk bottles when he delivered our milk. The dairy reused them many times.

Milkman.delivers

1940s Milkman Reuses Glass Bottles

Of course, this Mad Jubilado sometimes remembers little details about the post-WWII era 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” driven by the high-tech fossil-fueled industrial culture of perpetual economic growth. We can do much more now to capture the waste of the industrial-consumer economy, but how and to what extent does it really matter?

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 planned to make. Despite my disdain for its well-deserved “whole paycheck” reputation, I marvel at the diversity of fresh and varied food products available there from around the world. Whole Foods is the one of the few places in the middle of the Southwest desert where you can pick up some “not previously frozen” fresh Alaskan salmon. However, that is feasible only if you happen to have that increasingly rare upper middle-class income. Meanwhile, wild salmon season shortens, the fish get smaller, and plastic trash proliferates in the seas.

plastic clamshell lettuce

Plastic Containers of Lettuce and Prepared Fruit

A huge cold case displays many plastic-encased varieties of prepared salad ingredients along an entire isle. “Mixed baby greens,” Romaine hearts, etc., each individually packed in plastic containers. Ah, the conveniences afforded the remnants of the upper middle class!

The Recycling Diversion

Recycling is a growing industry. Finally, the recycling of plastic in 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 other barely identifiable materials used in ever-extended packaging seems to accelerate. However, we must ask the question, is such plastic proliferation sustainable, even if we rigorously recycle? The answer is no.

Ultimately, something is wrong with the whole industrial cycle that creates such a growing need for additional recycling. Widespread consumer compliance with the recycling ethic seems unattainable. Even if achieved, recycling itself is a big energy consuming industry. In addition to the proliferation of complex packaging as well as of plastics themselves, I have noticed that many forms of plastic packaging such as those holding diverse parts from picture hangers to light bulbs at the hardware store, have no recycling code at all. Who is exempt and why? Controlling such plastic proliferation into the environment seems impossible, short of banning it altogether.

Does it even matter, since such a small percentage of plastic packaging, from produce bags to clamshells and water bottles, actually reaches the recycling center? Is the half-hearted ethic of recycling contributing to the expansion of the growing abundance of “post-consumer” waste by slightly reducing the pressure on overloaded landfills? Perhaps, but something deeper is at play.

The Necessity that Should Not Be

In the present context of prolific consumption and waste, recycling is the proverbial finger in the dike, only temporarily holding back just one segment of the flood of anthropogenic ecological disaster. If we could recycle everything – and we cannot – it would not even slow global warming noticeably before it reaches the point of no return from climate catastrophe to societal chaos. Don’t get me wrong. To whatever extent we produce consumer waste, recycling is absolutely necessary, but it is also absolutely not sufficient.

There is a big difference between “re-use” and “recycle.” Dairy farms re-used those glass milk bottles in the nineteen-forties and fifties 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 in which the milkman carried them in during their long life of re-use. Their utility was not wasted on “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, shipping, manufacture, use, and waste. Otherwise, we are just kidding ourselves. The extraction and burning of fossil-fuels should be taxed at the point of extraction. The funds should be used to convert energy production and industry to the simplest forms, with near-zero emissions 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 heavily at the point where it is prepared for introduction into the environment – the factory. The purpose of such taxation should be to make profligate plastic packaging economically too costly to continue. What is most important about consumer waste is that we can reduce it only by constraining its production. If all the butter lettuce is contained in plastic clam-shells, we have lost. The consumer has little choice and too many choices. 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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