the dangerous seduction of recycling

Bagging up my trash in Portland‘s required blue bags and bringing paper bags of recyclable stuff to the curbside, I thought (resentfully), “I can’t believe the government is forcing me to do this.” I laughed at myself for thinking it because it’s so unlike me. It’s my position that the government is us (“We, the people”) and if we don’t like what the government is doing, we work to change it. Yes, it can be more complicated than that. But in general, that’s how I see it. As my grumbling went on and I thought, “I can’t believe my taxes are going to this forced recycling,” I was seething just a little bit.

Discussing recycling I tend to say, “It’s not that I think recycling is bad, really, but…” But that’s not true. I think recycling is harmful. I think people spending time and energy bagging up their # whatever plastics and cardboards, metals, and glass makes it easy for them to be otherwise apathetic. It soothes the conscience. It makes people feel there is hope for saving the earth. People believe they are doing something. It’s terribly difficult to feel that there’s nothing we can do. Personal/household recycling is an opiate keeping us dull so we let the big businesses continue on with their devastating activities. We’re not going to get too worked up about supporting candidates who will draft and bring to law legislation that regulates the people (major corporations) doing the real damage. We’re helping solve the problem already, see?

As for facts and evidence backing up my gut-level description here, I don’t remember where I learned about the relative impact of household recycling in relation to restrictions on industrial pollution and/or incentives to create truly sustainable alternatives to our production, consumption, and waste systems as they are now. Some of it came from either in Green Metropolis: What the City Can Teach the Country About True Sustainability, or SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes And Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance. Or, it was neither of those and it was just a modge podge of various things I read or heard. In any case, I’ll still recycle. I’ll still buy less and reuse whenever I can. I’ll do those things. But I’ll know that I’m not really doing anything to tackle the environmental crisis. Even if every single one of us was diligent about our household recycling, the environmental crisis would not go away. The environmental crisis will be slowed if we focus our attention on industrial pollution (internationally) and the inventions of new technologies to end our dependence on fossil fuels.

I’ve been in a bit of an activist’s hibernation as I dealt with recent challenges of life. I’ve been focusing on parenting my young ones and getting us through some tough times. Things are settling down now, though. Maybe I’ll learn about my elected officials and legislation and talk to local non-profits about the work they are doing. My older daughter has wanted to “help the earth” and I teach a writing class at her school. Maybe I’ll find out who the biggest polluters are near us and see if my daughter’s class wants to take on a letter writing campaign. Maybe I’ll do something with the potential to actually help slow the emission of greenhouse gasses and keep the water clean and… but, yes, on Sunday night, I’ll bring my paper bags filled with cardboard and plastic and metal and glass out to the curb for Monday morning’s pickup.

11 Comments

Filed under activism, mindful living

11 responses to “the dangerous seduction of recycling

  1. proteusmd

    I hear you on the “I’m not making an impact” front as this is what i get a lot from people who I speak to. And My answer is always simple, the entirety of what you are doing can not be calculated simply by the number of pounds you are keeping out of the waste stream. While you are doing that, you are also teaching others, leading by example, instructing your kids on what responsibility is. And it’s that last bit that i think is most important. Recycling (or actually the much better way to go about it that you alluded to, not adding to the waste stream in any way by consuming less) is our responsibility. That as opposed to the idea that it’s our right to consume wantonly with no regard for the consequences.

    Can we stop what lies ahead? Truthfully no one can say. But I always look at it this way. If a child runs in the street in front of a car, I don’t consider whether I can do anything to help that child based on the odds of being successful. I run out there and give it everything i can because the payoff, however slight, is worth it. And more importantly, because doing so, looking out for others, is my responsibility as a member of the tribe of humankind.

    My two cents. Good for you for grappling honestly and even better for still putting out the recycling.

    • Thanks for reading and replying. What I’m suggesting is there are ways we can model responsible behavior for our children and make a larger impact than “household recycling” efforts could ever do. I’m not saying “there is no hope.” It wasn’t my intention at all. It was my intention to say that bringing corks from wine bottles in to Whole Foods http://blog.wholefoodsmarket.com/2010/04/cork-reharvest/ might make someone feel a little better, but that feel a little better might allow them to take it easy on being active in other ways that might have more impact.

      As Cathie said (and you are saying), it makes sense to slow the increase of the size of the landfills. I’m not saying I think recycling is directly bad for the environment. And, I’ll just say again, I’m not saying there’s no hope. I think personal recycling can be (isn’t always) a distraction from the larger issues of industrial pollution and destructive farming/production practices.

      Thank you, again, for reading and replying!

      • proteusmd

        I hear ya. I guess you’re just not very clear (yes I said that on purpose). Kidding. But whether you intended to make it or not, the impact that we as citizens can make on a personal level is almost nothing compared to the impact that businesses and larger entities can make, and need to. But the reason i think it’s most important in your house (and ours) is because we are setting up a training ground to where recycling and using less is the norm and not doing so would seem wrong. They will take that into their lives, into their jobs and hopefully beyond. And that’s the way change can come (imho).

        • I agree with you, as long as those personal actions are not used to justify inaction in every other area. Reducing consumption, for example, isn’t as popular as recycling. I just see too many people who are *really* into recycling who seem to think they are making a major difference. And, I get your point, but I still feel there’s a need for greater education so people will realize we all need to hold the big businesses accountable for making the changes they need to make. Same page, we are, I think. :-)

  2. proteusmd

    One other thing. Contact your reps and ask about single stream recycling. No more sorting or bagging, just everything in one bin. Makes a world of difference.

  3. Cathie Green

    a comment from a friend on Facebook that I asked if I could copy here:

    Well that is one of the more interesting rants I have read lately Heather. As one who works in the field of waste management & diversion, I can’t say I disagree with you … but I do have to say your line of thinking escapes most of the N American populace, as you well know! Until we are able to effect the bigger picture (good luck with the letter writing campaign!) we have to pitch to the lowest common denominator in order to try & keep our heads above water. It might be helpful to think about curbside bluebox programs not as something that is going to change the environmental course we are on globally, but simply as the best means we have right now to minimize the need to build new landfills. In terms of waste management, that is the bottom line.

  4. proteusmd

    Actually I’d disagree slightly although I understand the thought. The greatest means we have at our disposal to control waste management is to control consumption. So recycling should be the second line of defense while consuming less and smarter should be the first.

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