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Recycling Redux

I am a voracious recycler. 

If my local hauler won’t take it, I’ll save it in our garage and haul it to a private recycler myself. 
 
If there’s any question about the safety of something left over from a remodeling project, it goes to the next Household Hazardous Waste Collection Day event, whenever they are held (usually several times a year in nearby communities).
 
The reverence given to recycling is embodied in the most famous environmental motto: Reduce-Reuse-Recycle. If you are expected to be taken seriously as an advocate of “living green,” then you’d better be recycling your ass off to prove it.
 
Agree?
 
Well, you may need to brace yourselves for this one... The practice of curbside recycling for residential homes may actually be a long-term loser for the environment.
 
I have a number of reasons for this unpopular position, some of which may be thinly disguised complaints, and all points are debatable, to be sure… 
 
It Feels Good… and That’s the Problem! Everyone gets that warm and fuzzy green feeling when they carry their recycling bin to the curb, right? Well, try this at a party sometime: Ask some of your “not-as-committed-to-living-green-as-you-are” friends what they do to be environmentally-friendly. The first answer from nearly everyone’s lips will be “I recycle”.   That will be followed by a series of “Err’s” and “Uh’s”.
 
Consumption is the real issue here (a topic for a future blog). If we were not so voracious about buying “stuff,” then we would not be creating such a need to recycle. But it takes almost no effort for a household to recycle today, and it leads people to believe that they are indeed “environmentally-conscious.” I would say that in these days of climate change, energy consumption, species extinctions, chemical contamination, urban sprawl, rain forest destruction, etc., recycling is not anywhere near the top of our list of environmental worries. 
 
Contamination Leads to the Landfill – The profit margins in the recycling business are miniscule, and they are changing all the time. For recyclers to make enough money to stay in business, they typically need to provide a reliably clean product to their buyers. But most people are not aware that for recycling to work, the recyclables must be clean and sorted. 
 
If you throw your spaghetti jar in the recycling bin along with the spag residue, jar lid, and the label, then you are contaminating the batch. If newspaper gets wet (i.e. rain) or if your white paper includes envelopes with those little clear windows, its value plummets. If too many #7 plastics get accidentally tossed in alongside #2, then there’s another big problem. If you don’t know the difference between corrugated and non-corrugated cardboard, then you may be causing your local recycler headaches.
 
When too many people don’t clean and sort, the recycler has the choice of manually removing the contaminated stuff (if markets are good at the time, it may be worth it), stockpiling to wait for prices to change, or tossing the whole batch, including the good stuff, into the landfill.
 
Dueling Environmental Concerns – Most recyclables are sold to overseas buyers in Asia. The transportation costs right now may be a bigger concern than the resources used for new products.
 
I am not suggesting that we halt residential recycling efforts (as much as it may sound that way). I’m just not convinced that making recycling “easier” for people is the way to go. There should be ways to make it better. There should be ways to make it a part of people’s lives without making it their cornerstone exercise of living green.
 
I am definitely suggesting that we should pay more attention to the first two mantras of that Holy Environmental Trinity of “Reduce-Reuse-Recycle”. The more we do of them, the less we will need to do of the latter.

 

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