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Recycling is evil; pass it on.

January 28, 2010

This article is a response to the post by writer Sharleen Jonsson in which she decides whether to support the struggling newspaper industry by upping her subscription to daily paper delivery, or to try not to increase her paper consumption.

“But does it really matter, if I recycle?” Sharleen asks.

This is a big question. And my answer is YES it matters!

Our environmental problems are overwhelming. So overwhelming. And, once you start to grasp the overwhelmingness of it all, it’s really depressing. So people tend to focus on the positive – even if that positive is not actually representative of the big picture. It’s something to clutch at. Because the reality of the negatives – the very major changes we need to take make in in our lifestyles order to ensure that our planet is liveable for humans in the future – are mind-boggling.

So, instead, people focus on the positive things that we can do – things that, on the scale of the problem itself, actually have neglible impact – to the point that I think these “false-positive” messages are really damaging. Because now we can justify our consumption by letting ourselves believe that we are doing our part:
– oh, it’s OK if I consume manufactured single-use items that were transported to my home using greenhouse gases because I recycle them (consuming more greenhouse gases)
– and I can fly around the world because I’ll buy carbon credits to offset the fuel burned on my behalf (usually “credits” for projects e.g. tree-planting, that would have gone on anyway)
– and it’s OK for me to keep using energy because we are moving towards alternative sources – technology will save us!

Sorry if I sound cynical. I am. I am starting to feel that this whole feel-good thing about recycling is a huge fraud, perpetrated (by whom? I don’t know) to make people feel OK about consuming single-use items. Recycling used to be only the final last-ditch option of the three R’s:
1. Reduce
2. Reuse
3. Recycle
Now, recycling seems to be a source of pride. Look at the big pile of single-use items items I have at the bottom of my driveway this week! See what a good environmentalist I am?

Recycling is still throwing something out – and burning more fossil fuels as those items are transported back to the plant and remanufactured into another single-use item.

This is especially poignant right now, as it was just announced that there will be no more recycling of newspapers in BC. Newspaper for recycling will now be shipped to the US or to Asia! How can we feel good about that!

I am not for a moment trying to claim that I lead the perfect model life in any way. The way our society is structured now, it is impossible to – you’d have to truly eject yourself from society (which I am actually considering doing). But there is not enough room in the Canadian wilderness for 34 million homesteading hermits, so even that is not a feasible large-scale solution either (and even less so for most other countries).

What my mission is, at the moment anyway, is to try to encourage others to cut down their consumption. Of what? Of everything. It is very hard to remain in society yet cut your consumption by 100%. But it is quite feasible for most people to cut consumption by 10 or 20%. Rather than me cutting down by 100% just to make the point – if I can convince ten people to cut down their consumption by 10%, the net effect on our planet is the same as me taking the 100% eject-myself-from-society extreme route. So I encourage people to:
get on their bike, or walk, and use their car 10% less
– eat 10% less meat (our high meat consumption is a huge cost to the planet)
– use 10% less plastic – get in the habit of carrying reusable shopping bags, and reject products that use excessive packaging
– use 10% less paper
produce 10% of their own food
I think it would barely impact most people’s lives to make these 10% cuts. In fact, I bet that most people could cut all of these things by 25% without any serious suffering.

And what if I can influence 1000 people to make those 25% cuts? That would have the same net result as 250 times the effect of me going extreme and ejecting myself from society! So pass this info around.

We really can each make a difference. As individuals, it sometimes seems that what we each can do is very small – but there is a power in spreading the word, convincing others to do the same. That way we stand together. And, together, we do make a difference.

Sharleen, I do hear what you are saying about supporting the publishing industry. And I do so very fondly remember those weekend mornings, reading a real paper newspaper over a cup of coffee. But, for a long time now, I haven’t felt good about throwing that paper in the bin – even if it is a recycle bin. Every now and then I manage to snag someone’s old paper – sometimes weeks old – to relive that pleasure. (The second R).

But, to me, if I have to choose between supporting an industry (even one I work in!) and supporting the future of our planet, a place for our children, I have to choose our planet and our collective future. And that’s why I think we should – no, we must – get used to alternative financial models for many of our industries. The news(paper) industry is only one of them.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2010 8:54 pm

    In Toronto, Mayor Miller tackled the city’s horrific garbage problem by implementing a grand scale recycling and green waste management system. I was really pleased to see my garbage reduced to just a grocery bag a week. Most of my trash is packaging, so I’d look for things with recyclable packaging. Once you can separate the green waste and the city takes it away for processing, the city is left with very little to truck out to the dumps in Michigan.

    I was delighted until I learned that all of Toronto’s recycling gets shipped to Asia for sorting. What kind of sense does that make? The garbage gets trucked to the states, but the hundreds of thousands of tons of recycling is shipped to Asia? What happens to the green waste? Who is sorting it in Asia? What kind of working conditions are there?

    I’ve been a bit disillusioned with recycling ever since.

    • January 29, 2010 9:53 pm

      Oh, Ukeedog… thanks for your story. But that makes me so sad. It’s bad enough sending stuff to Asia from here – but at least we’re on the Pacific Ocean – you just load it on the boat (and then ship it a few thousand miles). But from Toronto???
      Here’s another “feel-good” solution. My “green” light bulbs. Do you think I feel good with all of that plastic? What’s the point of that. Oh, but I’ll recycle it, because it’s OK.

  2. July 5, 2011 9:58 am

    No offence (honestly), but a financial understanding of the world really helps. The price of recycled materials dropped hugely in 2008. It hasn’t come back.

    The problems with society are rooted in our financial system, IMO. The superwealthy (over $1b net worth) are far too powerful, and the gap between the incomes of the poorest and richest members of society is only widening. These sociopaths don’t want more money because they are greedy, that is a common misunderstanding. They want more money because it gives them more control, more power.

    The end result is: a completely biased mainstream media, governments dedicated to serving special interests (this would be called bribery or corruption in the 3rd world) instead of citizens, a failing education system, war for oil (and opium), an instant gratification consumerist economy, and a largely ignorant populace.

    It all starts with wealth/income disparity, and a lack of quality education/news coverage.

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