In addition to the inherent shortcomings of recycling as a solution to our trash problem, I came across the following sobering statistic: municipal solid waste, (household waste) represents about 2% of national waste, (what the country throws away in a year). So it seems that what you and I do with our garbage really makes very little difference. That sounds overly cynical. Recycling is better than discarding, but we’ve got a much bigger problem.
While numbers vary, the most conservative estimate is that the average consumer product generates 18 times its own weight in waste during the manufacturing process. So, that’s what has entered the waste stream before you’ve even gotten out of the store.
The unavoidable conclusion is that we have to consume less and who wants to do that? I like my stuff. I like my stuff a lot. I like my stuff perhaps too much. This is where I hit a wall.
In the course of blogging I came upon several unpleasant truths. Research into the specifics of recycling led to the realization that it is a deeply flawed solution to our garbage problem. Besides the fact that we throw things in the bin that cannot ultimately be recycled and must be sorted out, plastic and paper are routinely down cycled. Virgin material must be added to the mix during recycling in order to strengthen the integrity of the fibers. As fibers are repeatedly recycled they continue to weaken and this determines what uses they are still able to serve. So the water bottle you drop in the recycling bin today will not be reborn as another water bottle, but rather to create the filling in synthetic sleeping bags and winter coats and these items cannot be recycled. The fact that sleeping bags probably take a lot longer to get dumped in the trash than say, plastic water bottles, might make it seem like more is being diverted from landfill than actually is. It also means that each plastic water bottle has exactly one more life cycle before it reaches landfill. The other thing about recycling is where it takes place. Stuff that’s reasonably easy to recycle often goes overseas once it’s shredded…and it tends to go to the poorest places on Earth for further processing, places where environmental regulations are less stringent. There workers are exposed to all of the toxic fumes produced in the recycling process in addition to living, eating, and raising children on soil that is covered in plastic effluent. There are towns in China that are literally covered in plastic, where cancer rates have soared in the last two decades.
Recycling is clearly preferable to dumping. It makes us think about what we’re discarding. It reorients us to the fact that garbage doesn’t just go away, but it isn’t ultimately a solution. The more plastic we produce, the more plastic is on the planet. We’re not just reusing the same stuff. This makes garbage a bigger problem. This implies a needed change in the way we live. That’s not the conclusion I was hoping for. Sorry.