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.


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.

Craftsmanship for Creative Productivity

~ ~ ~ Another in the Mad Jubilado series ~ ~ ~

It seems a lot of retired men take up woodworking. At Santa Fe Community College (SFCC) I have met quite a few. Some are immensely talented and/or just have a huge storehouse of knowledge and experience. As with many fields of endeavor, only time and talent limit the depth and breadth of understanding possible in woodworking.

Description d un menuisier en travailOne of the most skilled of those I’ve met at SFCC is a woman who retired from a career as an ethnographer. In the typical class of 12 in the woodshop, ‘elder’ know-how is balanced by some very creative younger talent. It is a great experience to work with these folks. The environment is remarkably cooperative and supportive. Ideas and knowledge are shared; polite critiques and useful suggestions organically emerge from conversations about how to approach a problem of joinery, finishing technique or aesthetic design as a project evolves. It brings to mind an ideal image of how apprenticeships might have worked in shops producing for local communities and regional trade in the pre-industrial pre-corporate world of clear-air and artistry.


Industrial Furniture Production

Craftsmanship is not quite a lost art, though it might seem so. Industrial production, with its outsourced cheap mostly unskilled labor and highly automated production processes, has resulted in an overabundance of unimportant transitory products. Have you ever really thought about why a cable-television program such as “Storage Wars” exists?  So many people in so many suburbs across America have accumulated so much stuff, that a whole industry has developed just to store the overflow.

The glut of unused abandoned yet “valuable” consumer products that people are not yet willing to call waste, produces the ‘demand’ for all those commercial storage lockers. Without such ‘pre-waste’ there would be no need to find space for the overflow from garages where no cars can be parked because of the clutter.

Excessive extraction of materials needed to produce all that stuff, using gigantic mining and earth-moving equipment is seriously straining many living Earth systems, disrupting otherwise stable ecologies. The quantities of energy used, from mining to shipping to manufacturing to shipping again to warehousing to super-store display, are hard to grasp. It is all mechanized and automated to reduce labor costs in order to supply cheap stuff to feed the consumer culture. And they call it “progress.”

The whole global process is, of course, disrupting climate to a point fast approaching catastrophic collapse and global chaos. Too many “environmentalists” think we can fix the problem with new technology and substituting depleting resources with new materials. Instead of cutting back on their profligate consumerism, they want to “fix” the environment by recycling over-used materials and using just as much energy from more “sustainable” sources.

Instead, they could choose to live a less carbon-intensive “low-tech” life, buying only what they really need, goods the production of which is labor intensive rather than capital intensive. That would, of course, entail more work and more jobs. It would also entail a new great transformation in the way we live in relation to the planet and each other.

What if we all re-focused on smaller scale production of higher quality useful goods that last and require us to apply craftsmanship in their making? Many human-scale tools are available that require no energy inputs except those of the human head and hand to get the same work done.


Nutrient Rich Organic Produce

Oh, but that would take more time to produce. Yes, and that would mean jobs, jobs, jobs! Everyone could have one. More people are turning to human-scale production. As it turns out, small organic farms are significantly more productive than giant factory farms are. They also restore soils to a natural state in which they provide the nutrients missing in industrial agriculture. Given the power of the neo-liberal corporate industrial economy, making the transition to a viable low carbon emissions future is the hard part. We have the tools. We just need to figure out how to transform extractive economies into ecological communities.

The experience of making meaningful things (or performing meaningful services) is exactly what is missing in our declining perpetual-growth industrial economy and is exactly the economic model needed for mitigation of climate chaos and for ecological restoration. Look for hand-crafted products, locally made. Become a “locavore.”  It’s our choice: Creativity or Catastrophe.

Beyond Resistance: Replacement and Restoration for Resilience

Resist we must. But what will that get us, really? Well, catharsis yes. However, that is clearly not enough.

Will resistance bring a slower unraveling of American Democracy? Maybe, maybe not. The deep entanglement of political institutions with the increasingly monopolistic “technosphere” is so extensive that only resistance that borders on revolution might make a dent by forcing contraction of the corporate state. Don’t hold your breath.

climate change heats the planetWill resistance bring one or two less weather weirdings next year? Probably not. That will take a lot more than resistance. Only major contraction of the techno-industrial-consumer economy coupled with accelerated deployment of low-carbon technology and economics in local communities will make much difference. That will require massive social change at every level.

Limits of Resistance

Will resistance bring a respite from the splitting of our society between the extremely rich and the rest of us? Perhaps a tiny easing, if a new Congress were to legislate big penalties for abuse of the economy by the financial sector and if a new president were to appoint a ‘hard-ass’ to enforce existing anti-trust law. Only then might the parasitic financial sector shrink some. But its penetration into political institutions is deep and pervasive. But how much of the liberal insurgency that is the #resistance just a visceral repulsion to a narcissist sociopath and how much seeks deep social change?

Would resistance bring a slight improvement in the deteriorating health of our people due to abridged access to healthcare? Not likely in the short run, since it will take a lot more than Corporate Democrats controlling Congress to overthrow the Medical Insurance Monopoly and Big Pharma dominance over the forced “markets” mediating medical care. On the other hand, maybe enough resistance could generate the momentum needed to bring on universal health care, so common in the rest of the developed world.

Well, with a lot of resistance, we might at least get a concerted effort to accelerate climate action, right? Again, Mr. Big Corp is likely to continue forcing more capital-intensive hi-tech R&D programs, not accelerated deployment of ready-to-go distributed power generation and energy conservation strategies. Serious carbon emissions reduction, which requires major contraction of the technosphere, would involve seriously greater community control of economic activity, replacing the endless intermediation within the technosphere assuring sustained central control and uninterrupted human suffering.

Something Different: Replacement, Restoration, Resilience

No, we need something very different, and we need it now. “But you don’t know what it is, do you Mister Jones?” Of course, that is a major part of the problem. We are blindly sailing into unchartered waters in a sinking ship with the captain acting the mutineer  overloading a private lifeboat with bullion. “Follow the money.”

Sorry.Lifestyle.out.of.stockWe will not survive by appealing to existing authority structures or charismatic demagogues. Nor will we survive by separating out ‘recyclables’ while buying plastic-packaged everything and investing in a hybrid car to maintain accustomed fossil-fuel levels of mobility.

Well, I can tell you one thing. What we do need even more than resistance is replacement of the global industrial-consumer economy with local ecological communities. Also we urgently need restoration of ecosystems everywhere to stop the planetary bleeding of the complex of living Earth systems we timidly call “the environment.” Only then can we achieve the resilience we desperately need. We will never get close to resilience by appealing to national politics. We must act now where we live. Of course, that is the hard part.

Resist we must, but it will be far from enough, even if Indivisible, movements like it, and street protests grow much larger. Politicians will continue dickering and taking bribes right up to the point where full-on climate collapse accelerates weird weather events, droughts, floods, large-scale crop failures, forced migrations, escalated violence and imminence of societal collapse.

No, Resistance is not enough.