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.

Plastic Graduation: We are All in it Now

When Dustin Hoffman starred in “The Graduate,” I could relate to the situation in which his character found himself.  “Benjamin Braddock” had just graduated from college and sought some meaningful path in life. Even though I was nearly half way through a PhD program, I was still not entirely clear on where my path may lead. I had explored several majors as an undergraduate, before settling on a degree in Sociology.

Even as a PhD student, I took courses outside my field. Why I took a course in pre-revolutionary Russian literature, I will never know. Yet, even today, the understanding of the Russian culture it gave me informs my interpretation of the bizarre Putin-Trump political orbit. That statistics course in math department provided a very different angle on probability than I got in the statistical research classes in sociology. And that Latin American history class provided a wealth of information that served as context for my exploration of the role of U.S. efforts at empire and economic development in the region.

None of that diminished the cultural ambiguity I felt then. Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock, captured an essential angst of the time. Fresh out of college in the turbulent 1960s, Benjamin wondered what his place might be in a world riddled with hypocrisy and change. At a party given by his upper middle-class parents to celebrate his graduation, Ben wonders about his future. Mr. McGuire takes him aside.

Mr. McGuire: I want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics. [1]

Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There’s a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

When Mike Nichols directed “The Graduate,” glass bottles still contained all drinks. Today, plastics have proliferated in the bottling and packaging of just about everything. Despite the inundation of the oceans, lakes, rivers and land with plastic waste, their use in all kinds of consumer products and processes continues to accelerate. The narrow economics of consumer marketing even forces a plastic “clamshell” over a head of lettuce. The ubiquity of single-use plastic grocery bags is constrained only by a few cities banning them and charging ten cents for a single-use paper bag to encourage the use of multi-use bags and “save the trees”

Surfing junk_ocean-plastic-pollution_Monterrey Bay Aquarium

Surfing Plastic Waste

In 2015, the world produced 448 million tons of plastics, according to a new study reported in Science Advances,[2] a magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) meant for wider public audience. The AAAS also produces the prestigious technical science journal, Science.

This first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics ever manufactured, estimated that “…8300 million metric tons (Mt) of virgin plastics have been produced to date. As of 2015, approximately 6300 Mt of plastic waste had been generated, around 9% of which had been recycled, 12% was incinerated, and 79% was accumulated in landfills or the natural environment.” By 2050, about 12,000 million metric tons of plastic waste “will be in landfills or in the natural environment.” It is disturbing to note that less than ten percent of plastic is recycled, despite the proliferation of recycling programs.

Plastic Turtle Trap_maxresdefault

Tortoise Trapped in Plastic

This vast quantity of plastic waste is fundamentally incompatible with and severely damages the ecosystems it enters. First, it is not “bio-degradable,” and is particularly damaging to marine life. The “Great Pacific garbage patch,” also known as the “Pacific trash vortex,” discovered in the late 1980s, circulates in North Pacific. It contains “exceptionally high relative concentrations of pelagic[3] plastics, chemical sludge and other debris that have been trapped by the currents of the North Pacific Gyre.”[4] Furthermore, plastic waste damages wildlife, wildlife habitats, and humans, causing disruption of endocrine levels and biological functions.

Plastics may be the icon for the core dilemma of industrial modernity. The scientific evidence is clear. This ubiquitous product of industrial production/consumption threatens most ecosystems, just as the “byproduct” carbon dioxide already disrupts the climate stability upon which human life has depended since long before the industrial revolution. The cheap convenience of plastic products and packaging threatens the very ecosystems that sustain the lives of humans and the countless species whose extinction now occurs every year at accelerating rates.

Can humanity reign in the self-destructive project of plastic production, consumption, and pollution? We find very few signs of progress so far. The Trumping of climate action as well as national democratic process and international agreement on climate action is a major setback. It is now up to human communities everywhere to self-organize, assert their sovereignty over the conditions that threaten life itself, restore ecosystems, and abandon the life of plastic over-consumption. Can we graduate from the school of plastic waste?

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[1] “Note: the bolded line is ranked #42 in the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations in American cinema.” Accessed at: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/The_Graduate.

[2] Roland Geyer, Jenna R. Jambeck, and Kara Lavender Law, “Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made,”
Science Advances 19 July 2017: Vol. 3, no. 7, e1700782. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700782

[3] Pelagic means in open waters, not near the bottom and not near shore.

[4] See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Pacific_garbage_patch, citing several sources of scientific research on oceanic debris.