In our desire to be responsible citizens of the Earth, individuals and institutions have put a lot of energy into recycling. It’s more than just mental and physical energy, but also the kind that expends natural resources.
Recycling is an admirable answer to the growing problem of managing the waste of human consumption. But it is only a partial solution; the truth is that recycling leaves its own carbon footprint. Gas and electricity are consumed and pollution is created to cart away paper, plastics, and metals and repurpose them into new, usable products.
In the three R’s of environmental sustainability, “Recycling” is actually third in line. It’s always better to “Reduce” and “Reuse” first.
This is especially true with plastics. Unlike paper and metals, which can be manufactured back into their original form, plastic degrades each time it is reprocessed. Recovered plastic is typically used to make items that are not themselves recyclable, such as textiles and boards to build benches and decks.
As Madeleine Somerville wrote in an excellent column in The Guardian on Jan. 19, 2016: “These uses are certainly preferable to its not being reused at all, but it’s important to understand that recycling a plastic bottle doesn’t mean closing the loop. That bottle will not embark on some celestial journey, reincarnated a thousand times.”
Furthermore, she notes, there’s an economic impediment to recycling: It “only works when there’s someone on the other side of the equation, someone who wants to buy the recycled material. And although some organizations operate with earth-friendly practices, many do not.”
Finally, falling commodity prices mean recycled plastic, glass, aluminum, and cardboard are currently being sold for less than the cost to produce them. “It’s come to the point where many cities are operating recycling programs at a significant and consistent cash loss — admirable, perhaps, but not sustainable,” Somerville says.
What can we Pelhamites do about this? Well, if you have a choice between throwing a plastic bottle in the trash or a recycling bin, there’s no contest. However, try to avoid grabbing that plastic bottle of water to begin with, and carry a refillable bottle with you at all times.
Refuse the plastic bags at checkout and place your purchases in a reusable cotton tote. Refuse fruits sold in molded plastic packaging and buy them loose. Carry a reusable container so you can refuse single-use plastic bowls at the salad bar. Refuse throwaway coffee cups and ask your friendly barista to pour your low-fat latte macchiato grande in your favorite travel mug instead.
Many of the behaviors for refusing and reusing are obvious. It just takes practice for them to become habits. Reducing use of just a couple of waste items each week has a cumulative impact, particularly if we all do so. Get started this week and start making a difference.