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.

Necessary but Unlikely Total Mobilization to Curtail Climate Chaos

The inevitability of climate chaos leading to species extinction of humans, along with many other species, now seems assured without massive mobilization and collective action on a scale never before achieved by humans.  Necessary but seemingly impossible – that is not a comforting thought.  Yet, here we are, contemplating whether or not the president will even slow the juggernaut of fossil-fuel burning by rejecting construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport the most polluted crude oil from the environmental disaster called the Canadian Tar Sands Fields to Texas refineries for distribution on the world markets — not for “energy independence.”  Approval would be a purely financial act of enriching the industry at the expense of the planet.  To refuse approval would be a small step toward slowing the rapid slide into climate chaos.

Yet, many major actions, some much more complex, will have to be taken to make the difference between survival and extinction.  Here are just a few:

  • Massive retro-fitting of insulation of existing buildings.
  • Rapidly accelerate the installation of local photovoltaic solar electricity generation and local-regional wind farms and smart grids.
  • Execute broad water conservation strategy.
  • Tax all CO2  and externalized costs of fossil-based energy production and use revenue to fund conversion to carbon-neutral economy [lots of jobs in that].
  • Convert transportation from fossil-fuel to carbon-neutral energy and build required infrastructure.
  • Curtail intercontinental trade and shipping of goods easily made in the destination nation were it not for corporate “free trade” agreements favoring capital over labor.
  • Transform the corporate-driven international exploitation of local labor by mobile capital and shift production to the geographic region of consumption.
  • And even reconfigure the Internet to reduce wasteful giant server farms (including those of the NSA) that store massive quantities of data “in the cloud.”

These are just some of the major undertakings that are essential to slow global warming and minimize resulting climate disruptions.  The only example I know of a total mobilization of the kind required, but which occurred at a much smaller scale, was the rapid transformation of the stagnant American consumer economy into a booming war-production economy at the beginning of WWII.  (And Depression era unemployment was eliminated.)  Automobile production was stopped and factories were converted to production of tanks in a matter of weeks.  The iconic P-51 Mustang fighter aircraft was designed and put into production also in a few weeks.  In a variety of ways, the entire society was mobilized en mass, and with the full participation of the citizenry.  Why?  Because the focus and the stakes were clear to everyone – concerted action was the result.  We have not yet achieved that focus or clarity.

Could that level of collective commitment to, and implementation of, a conversion from a fossil-fuel based economy of perpetual growth and waste to a fully carbon-neutral economy of stability be accomplished in less than the maximum twenty-year window for action?  Theoretically, yes.  Practically, very unlikely, given the huge institutional and cultural obstacles we face.  Some scientists calculate that it would require changing about eighty percent of our production and consumption practices to achieve the carbon emissions goals that are necessary to not stop but just minimize climate disruptions over the next half century – that’s all the time we have, if that, and only if those changes are achieved in the very short term.  That would entail a Herculean collective effort – while the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Fixed News scoff.

Yet, necessity can overcome seeming impossibility, once necessity is fully recognized.  No political issues like who is to blame, who should go first in cutting emissions, etc., can even be contemplated in any scenario leading to success.  In our present situation, a massive collective effort must start now and accelerate rapidly.  I’m assuming that if such an effort were initiated in the U.S., most nations would quickly follow, for several reasons.  But how can it be done?

It would seem that only an FDR level of singular focused executive action by the currently farcical “all of the above” energy-policy president could turn the tide.  But how is that possible?  When we look at the record of presidential pandering to the financial and petro-industrial elites so far, hopes dim.  But history has also shown that public mobilization can direct the actions of “leaders” if the will of the people is expressed at a sufficient scale and intensity.

Naïve liberals wonder why their obviously smart-enough president kowtows to the power elites (who gave him all those big campaign contributions) and Republican obstructionists, instead of fighting for social programs in the “yes we can” vein on which they believe he was elected.  At the same time, the evolving totalitarian plutocracy is extremely unlikely to accept necessary drastic actions without a fight – indeed, such actions reach far beyond the mere social programs that are also in direct opposition to its short-term interests.

Racist congressional obstructionism aside, the fact is that the power structure cannot be moved without massive public pressure, no matter who the president is.  Keystone XL may be the key bellwether. Besides, most of the political “liberals” – the Democratic Party incumbents who are also well oiled by the corporatocracy – don’t really get how seriously threatening this crisis is, or, they are simply holding to their own short-term political/economic interests.  They will not be the agents of change; the people will be…if they will.

All sorts of questions about the future of democracy are raised by the massive-mobilization prerequisite to fending off the worst effects of the accelerating climate chaos we are already experiencing.  But in a system where a plutocratic alliance of corporations and government already manages a hollow shell of a defunct democratic process, such questions are mostly moot.  Survival is a precondition anyway if we are to ever return to a real democratic polity.  If massive mobilization is driven by grass-roots demands of the citizenry for concerted action, as it must be, that very same citizenry can establish new democratic forms during the Great Transformation, but only if it happens within the rapidly closing window of opportunity remaining.