Rethinking Recycling: Thoughts on David Allaway’s March 2020 Webinar
March 25, 2020 by Emily Selleck, TVCR Board
Something is very wrong…
Let’s look at the impact of materials from the perspective of Mother Earth. Up ‘til now, she has provided resources, mineral and biologic, for us to extract, process, transport, and use now and in the future. And, she has been able to safely absorb and/or metabolize their waste products.
As the global population has grown, so has our extraction of those resources. We are currently extracting resources faster than Mother Earth can provide. And, we have not been able to keep those products’ wastes below levels that Mother Earth can safely absorb and/or metabolize. As a result, climate change is now in full swing as demonstrated by epic flooding, more severe and prolonged wildfires, ocean acidification and dead zones, lethal tornadoes, and massive loss of habitat for both man and beast.
Before you throw your hands up in despair, let’s think about what we can do to mitigate at least some of this chaos. We’ll begin by looking at materials and their consumption as a root cause and continued driver of climate change. Our goal now should be Sustainable Wastes, plural. That means all wastes, not just solid wastes we toss in our trash or our recycling bins or our compost, but emission wastes (tailpipe, factories, and cow farts/burps). It means keeping as much material in circular loops (reuse/repurpose) as possible.
“What about composting?” you might ask. Composting food wastes increases carbon capture in soils and decreases methane emission. Food wastes can also be “digested” in municipal systems where the “digested” products can be captured as biogas for energy. All good things, for sure. But better yet, let’s also minimize food waste by proper distribution (the right amounts) and rescue for redistribution (animal fodder).
Now let’s take a look at “The Evil Landfill”. We have become accustomed to believing the more waste diverted from the landfill, the better. That thinking has its limitations:
- It frames the problem as a “waste problem” rather than a “consumption problem”. We have justified our consuming with the notion that “It’s OK. We can recycle and compost, and toss when we have to.” It gives ‘permission’ to consume under the false pretense that it will ultimately be someone else’s problem to solve (traditional recycled materials). Although recycling and composting are necessary, by themselves they are insufficient to handle all the ‘wasted’
- It leads to contamination. “If I don’t put stuff in the garbage, it won’t end up in the landfill.” True, but often it ends up in contaminated (“wish recycling”) recycling, or despoiling the environment (getting into our waterways and public spaces).
- It keeps us purchasing items in “recyclable” containers. What began as a good idea (recycling) has bitten us in the back: manufacturers jumped on the recycling bandwagon as a means of selling more product (consumers loved the idea!). Recent studies have demonstrated the environmental impact of recycling a tuna can vs sending a non-recyclable pouch (that contained tuna) to the landfill. When the environmental costs of extraction, production, shipping, and recycling the tuna can were added up, they far exceeded those of the non-recyclable pouch that went to the landfill.
Which brings up packaging material in general. Different materials have inherently different environmental impacts. Many products are “recyclable” (as opposed to traditional “recycled” materials), meaning they can be reused in their current form, or further processed to make other products (denim to insulation, or single-use plastic bottles to fleece garments, for example). When we consider the future – the upstream impacts – “recyclable” materials, those kept in circular loops like the above, are kinder to Mother Earth than “recycled” materials that all too often become burdensome contaminants in the environment. When we go to the store, let’s ask ourselves, “Does this material (packaging) benefit the manufacturer, or does it benefit the environment (by staying in circulation)?”
So, let’s give the “Evil Landfill” a break! Let’s focus our energies on source materials, and consider reining in our own consumption. We can “encourage” manufacturers to design for the environment, not their bottom line by Refusing to purchase many items packaged in environmentally-unfriendly materials (or amounts, e.g. single-use), and by thoughtfully putting stuff in the garbage. Unlike Hobson, we have choices – we can refill water bottles, buy in bulk, bring our own bags, and reuse some items for other purposes. (Thomas Hobson, 1544-1631, was a livery stable owner who offered customers only the horse nearest the door.)