I can’t remember not recycling. I’m sure the regular routine started somewhere in the seventies; the first Earth Day was 1970, but I was bopping around the globe in the Air Force until 1975, so it was likely more around the time I was in a degree program for solar energy technology, circa 1976. Of course, in order to recycle we would have had access to some recycling program. And by “program,” I mean more the centralized repository for all things recyclable. A handy and brief stroll down “Recycling History Lane” reminds us that recycling isn’t a fabrication of the hippies in the sixties, but that Japan recycled (or, more accurately, re-pulped) paper sometime around the beginning of the 11th century. The first paper recycling manufacturing process was introduced in the late 17th century by the Rittenhouse Mill in Philadelphia. Before trees were the source of paper, rags were collected and transformed into paper; a poetic ditty of that era captured the essence of recycling:
“So that the flax which first springs from the land,
First Flax, then yarn…
To weave the same which they took pains to spin.
Also when on our backs it is well worn,
Some of the same remains ragged and torn;
Then of the Rags the Paper is made,
Which in process of time doth waste and fade;
So what comes from the earth, appeareth plain,
The same in Time, returneth to earth again.”
Recycling has had its practical application in times of both war and peace; it’s a very natural concept, actually, since Nature recycles everything, that whole “waste equals food” thing. Had we stuck to that ethic…ah, but, we didn’t, so here we are. Recycling recently found a place in the news – remarkable as it may seem that anything could supplant the political circus – because China, where we were sending around 30% of our recycled material for processing into things like Smartphones and all things plastic, decided last year to stop taking our trash, throwing a rather large recycling industry into a mild (so far) panic. Consequences for this stoppage vary, and include the loss of jobs and an important component of a “green economy.” But it also might mean a review of our consumption habits and the packaging thereof. Plastic has many essential applications in our world, from medical to space exploration, but the proliferation of plastic waste in our environment is adding to the list of problems that are literally suffocating life. Plastic straws have become the latest on a list of products to avoid, but there are several worse offenders.
For all the benefits of recycling – saving energy and natural resources, reducing waste and groundwater pollution, for example – it shouldn’t be an end in and of itself. Would we recyclers be more focused on alternatives to plastic in our daily lives if recycling wasn’t an option? It seems we humans are less likely to address the root of a problem if there is an alternative that takes the sharp edge off the problem (see “Is This the Boiling Frog Era?”)
The case for reducing and reusing is pretty solid. The EPA, apparently still able to put out useful information, lists these benefits:
- Prevents pollution caused by reducing the need to harvest new raw materials
- Saves energy
- Reduces greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change
- Helps sustain the environment for future generations
- Saves money
- Reduces the amount of waste that will need to be recycled or sent to landfills and incinerators
- Allows products to be used to their fullest extent
Regarding the “reuse” leg of the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” stool, there’s a good chance my propensity toward saving stuff – I prefer to call it “repurposing” to “hoarding” – comes from Depression Era parents. I’m not quite sure what use my dad intended for a couple of large boxes of Folgers Coffee cans, but you can be sure if anyone needed a metal coffee can, Pops would produce it. For my part, if you need plastic bubble packing material, I’m your guy.
More ideas from the Environmental Protection Agency:
- Buy used. You can find everything from clothes to building materials at specialized reuse centers and consignment shops. Often, used items are less expensive and just as good as new.
- Look for products that use less packaging. When manufacturers make their products with less packaging, they use less raw material. This reduces waste and costs. These extra savings can be passed along to the consumer. Buying in bulk, for example, can reduce packaging and save money.
- Buy reusable over disposable items. Look for items that can be reused; the little things can add up. For example, you can bring your own silverware and cup to work, rather than using disposable items.
- Maintain and repair products, like clothing, tires and appliances, so that they won’t have to be thrown out and replaced as frequently.
- Borrow, rent or share items that are used infrequently, like party decorations, tools or furniture.
Of course, the best waste reducer is to not have waste in the first place. Like most things, there is no easy or perfect answer to achieving some level of equilibrium in our consumption/disposal cycle, a place that more closely mimics Nature in “waste-equals-food.” But we can surely do better using our capacity to make better choices. Oh, and about the title of this tome, just kidding. Don’t stop recycling. For now.