People used to to ask me, essentially, why I was making such a big dig about not making trash during the No Impact project. They’d say, “I mean, it’s recyclable, right?”
As Annie Leonard says in Story of Stuff, “Recycling reduces the garbage at [the landfill and incinerator] end and it reduces the pressure to mine and harvest new stuff at [the production] end. Yes, yes, yes, we should all recycle. But recycling isn’t enough.”
Annie goes on to point out that for every garbage can of waste we put on the curb, industry created 70 garbage cans of waste to manufacture it. Even if we recycled every garbage can’s worth coming out of our house, it wouldn’t make a scratch in the 70 cans created upstream.
Besides, as writer Dan Rademacher points out in his article “Manufacturing a Myth: The Plastic Recycling Ploy,” plastic bottles, for example, are not recycled to make more plastic bottles. They are “downcycled” into, say, fleece jackets or a park benches or toothbrush handles, all of which eventually ends up in the trash.
That means that new plastic is required to make every bottle and every bit of plastic used to make that bottle–even if you end up wearing it or brushing your teeth with it for a while–ends up in a landfill or an incinerator. That’s not true recycling.
Even the rates of what passes for recycling are often abysmally low. PET water bottles only get recycled at the rate of 14%. The rest ends up in the landfills and incinerators, according to the Container Recycling Institute.
Meanwhile, producers who advertise their products as “recyclable,” even if their products do not end up actually getting recycled, may get a boost in demand. The paradox? That this can cause an increase in the use of resources consumers expect recyclability to prevent (and if that’s not green-washing, I don’t know what is).
In my view, true recycling between producer and consumer occurs, for example, when a glass milk bottle is returned to the dairy, washed and refilled. Even then, using it is not free of environmental impact. There remain the environmental costs and carbon emissions associated with washing it, refilling it, and transporting it.
This is why, during the No Impact project, the object was to produce no trash at all, not even so-called recyclable trash (not newspapers, milk cartons, magazines, junk mail, not packaging of any sort, not really much of anything that would end up getting tossed).
LV GRN Tip #2: As the saying goes, “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” Recycling is at the very end of the list. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth recycling. It does mean that recycling is not without environmental cost, though it has less cost than just throwing stuff away.
Top of the pyramid is reduce. That means, even in our post-No-Impact life, we still work hard at not consuming what we don’t need to. Then comes reuse, which means once we have it, use it as often as you can before we get another. And finally comes recycle, which we’ve talked about enough.
PS For those of you who don’t dig the LV GRN posts, never fear! “Big issue” tomorrow.