Why I hate recycling

By David Beach

Don't get me wrong. I do recycle.

I bundle up my newspapers. I dump yard wastes into my compost pile behind the garage. I fill blue recycling bags with aluminum, glass and plastic containers and put them out on the curb for pickup. The whole process is easy, contrary to the myth perpetuated by the throwaway packaging industry that Americans will never recycle because it's "inconvenient" or "messy."

This recycling is good, important and necessary. But I'm suspicious of it just the same.

As far as environmental issues go, recycling is a lowest common denominatoran issue with which no one can disagree. That's why it's an overwhelming theme of Earth Day media campaigns. Sometimes I get the impression that my entire commitment to the Earth and to building a sustainable society can be boiled down to throwing my aluminum cans in the proper recycling receptacle.

The problem with recycling is that it's another end-of-pipe pollution control strategylike scrubbers on smokestacksthat fails to get to the root of the problem. As Kirkpatrick Sale, a writer and activist in the Green and bioregional movements, writes: "Recycling centers are like hospitals; they are the institutions at the end of the cycle that take care of problems that would have never existed if ecological criteria had operated at the beginning of the cycle."

"The point is," Sale argues, "that the ecological crisis is essentially beyond 'our' control, as citizens or householders or consumers or even voters. It is not something that can be halted by recycling or double-pane insulation. It is the inevitable by-product of our modern industrial civilization, dominated by capitalist production and consumption and serviced and protected by various institutions of government, federal to local.

It cannot possibly be altered or reversed by simple individual actions, even by the actions of the millions who took part in Earth Day even if they all went home and fixed their refrigerators and from then on walked to work.

Nothing less than a drastic overhaul of this civilization and an abandonment of its ingrained godsprogress, growth, exploitation, technology, materialism, anthropocentricity, and powerwill do anything substantial to halt our path to environmental destruction, and it's hard to see how life-style solutions will have an effect on that."

I got to thinking about recycling and other lifestyle changes a few years ago as I read a brochure announcing that Alice Tepper Marlin was coming to town. She is the founder of the Council on Economic Priorities and co-author of Shopping for a Better World: A Quick and Easy Guide to Socially Responsible Supermarket Shopping. The brochure said she would teach me how to let my conscience be my guide as I purchase everything from breakfast cereal to midnight snacks. My grocery cart would become a vehicle for social change.

Her guidebook grades companies in 11 categories, including how much they give to charity, the number of women and minorities in top management positions, their environmental records, and their involvement in military contracting or nuclear power. The painstakingly researched book has sold more than hundreds of thousands of copies, and, according to follow-up surveys, most of the readers said they switched brands to buy from companies more in line with their personal values.

In the supermarket, for example, I might be wavering between comparably priced cans of frozen juice. One brand is Dole made by Castle and Cooke, Inc., and the other brand is Minute Maid, a product of Coca-Cola. At the time, the guidebook gave black marks to Castle and Cooke in promoting women, community programs, disclosure of information and the environment (high pesticide use). Overall, Coke got much higher grades, but it was doing business in South Africa (this was prior to the ending of apartheid).

Which should I buy? I care about all the categories. How can I make a moral choice that makes South Africa more or less important than pesticide use or the number of women on a company's board of directors? My decision is further complicated by the fact that the companies are graded on a curve, not according to some absolute scale. Thus, all the companies making a certain product may have lousy environmental records, but some are ranked high, some low, so shoppers can compare. It means that even the winners may be losers on my personal scale.

Pocket guidebooks like Shopping for a Better World are a first step in green consuming. Next comes information posted on the store's shelves, as some supermarkets have already started doing. Finally, comes a labeling program for the products themselvesan environmental seal of approval such as West Germany's "Blue Angel" or the "Green Seal" proposed by a group of environmentalists in the United States.

But once you start comparing productseven just for their environmental impactthe complexities keep multiplying. The most sophisticated comparisons are life-cycle analyses. They attempt to measure a product's impact from cradle to grave by considering resources consumed and pollutants emitted during manufacture, use and disposal.

Such calculations sometimes produce controversial results. Are paper grocery bags more environmentally correct than plastic ones? Not necessarily, according to one West German analysis that considered the energy used in production and air and water pollution created during the life of each type of bag. (Of course, the best alternative is to bring your own reusable bags to the store.)

Depending on who does them, life-cycle analyses can "prove" that disposable diapers are better than cloth, or even that shirts made out of synthetic fabrics are better than ones made out of cotton (because of all the chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides used to grown cotton). The problem is that there are hundreds of variables to consider and no rules governing which are most significant. Energy consumed transporting the product to the store? Health hazards to workers during manufacture? Number of old-growth trees cut down? Who decides?

Andre Carothers once wrote in the environmental journal, E Magazine, "[A]t the heart of the controversy is, of course, the question of what product is truly environmentally benignand on that few agree. Should we reward a company for putting a toxic fabric softener in a biodegradable paper package? If General Electric makes an energy-efficient light bulb, do we buy it from them knowing that the same company makes nuclear warheads and pushes nuclear power plants on third world countries? Fort Howard Paper Company, which has been slammed by environmentalists for dumping PCBs in Lake Michigan's Green Bay, is coming out with a line of recycled paper products. The products might be good, but is the company?

For these reasons, green consuming could prove a costly diversion. Ultimately, the pace of planetary decline will not be significantly slowed if homemakers in the United States change their purchasing habits. Also, the opportunity to 'buy green' may satisfy the public's urge to do the right thing, thus sapping their enthusiasm for more substantive change. As one British critic wrote in New Statesman, 'When the going gets tough, the Greens go shopping.'"

Carothers acknowledged, however, that efforts like Shopping for a Better World and the "Green Seal" should be supported. After all, if environmentalists don't provide the consumer information, the mass marketers will. As corporations position themselves to profit from the public's growing environmental awareness, everything will be called "green" and "environmentally friendly."

But he cautioned, "The real answer to the crisis of ecological degradation is not consuming more appropriately, it is consuming lessa pitch you will not see coming out of Madison Avenue."

But wait. In certain cases, even anti-consumerism can be a marketing ploy. In one magazine advertisement, the Esprit clothing company issued "A plea for responsible consumption."

It said, "Today, more than ever, the direction of an environmentally conscious style is not to have luxury or conspicuous consumption written all over your attire...We believe that this could best be achieved by simply asking yourself before you buy something (from us or any other company) whether this is something you really need. It could be you'll buy more or less from us, but only what you need. We'll be happy to adjust our business up or down accordingly, because we'll feel we are then contributing to a healthier attitude about consumption. We know this is heresy in a growth economy, but frankly, if this kind of thinking doesn't catch on quickly, we, like a plague of locusts, will devour all that's left of the planet."

Sincere or not, can you imagine many other companies advertising like thatreally putting the long-term interests of the planet before short-term profits?

Can you imagine Ford or GM urging people to buy smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, or lobbying for less highway construction, more compact cities and better public transportation so people don't have to be slaves to the automobile?

Can you imagine the oil companies renouncing fossil fuels and leading the way to an economy based on solar and other clean, renewable energy sources?

Or can you imagine the U.S. government renouncing militarism, fighting to rectify the imbalance of wealth between rich and poor nations, and working seriously to curb population growth?

For such things to happen, people will have to go beyond recycling and responsible shopping as individuals. They will have to organize together for fundamentally new economic and political arrangementssustainable societies that meet real human needs in harmony with ecological limits.

  • Beyond the Limits by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers. Chelsea Green Publishing, 1992.
  • Center for Plain Living, 60805 Pigeon Point, Barnesville, OH 43713.
  • The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability by Paul Hawken. HarperBusiness, 1993.
  • Griesinger Films, 7300 Old Mill Rd., Gates Mills, OH 44040 (440-423-1601). Videos on ecological economics.
  • How Much is Enough?: The Consumer Society and the Future of the Earth by Alan Durning. W.W. Norton, 1992.
  • Living More With Less by Doris Janzen Longacre. Herald Press, 1980.
  • Northeast Ohio Greens, 530 Euclid Ave., Suite 200, Cleveland, OH 44115 (216-631-0557).
  • Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E.F. Schumacher. Harper & Row, originally published 1973.


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