Recycling is Failure

While I mean this post’s headline to provoke, what I don’t mean by it is that any particular recycling program is a failure. I mean that whatever good is done by recycling household trash (or most other types of waste), it still indicates a failure to do something better.

Yet recyling is the environmental thing we most pat ourselves on the back for doing. The messages we get are mostly, “It’s OK to keep buying flavored sugar water, as long as you put the bottle or can in the recycling bin.”

When I read an article about all Wal-mart’s swell big new efforts to help the environment, I go in with a grain of salt. It’s nice to hear that a company known for squeezing small food producers for every last penny now plans to patronize more small and middling size farms in emerging markets. (Really. I mean that sincerely. I do.)

But when I read, in the same recent Washington Post article, that Wal-Mart’s green initiatives include “a program to recycle the company’s used plastic bottles into dog beds sold at its stores,” I laugh first, cry second. Then laugh again. We’re supposed to applaud Wal-Mart for turning one unnecessary product into another one?

But of course, we all do the same thing. While I don’t buy much in jars, bottles, cans or plastic trays, and I reuse most of that, I still take delivery of a daily paper, for instance. We all waste.

And the bear of it is, for municipal recycling programs to work — for any recycling program to work — the price of the postconsumer paper, plastic, glass and metal needs to be high. But if demand is high enough to keep prices up, that means more energy is being burned in an inherently wasteful and destructive consumer economy, one that takes a little more out of the planet’s hide each day.

I recycle fairly religiously. And I know that individual, voluntary initatives to “save the planet,” while laudable, will never be enough on their own. But if I had to choose between someone trading in his car for a bike; whacking home electric usage by 60 percent (as my wife and I did); or even ceasing to buy factory-farmed meat — between those and recycling one’s product packaging, the choice would be pretty easy.

Recycling isn’t “sustainable.” At best, it’s a way of softening the damage we do. (Some curbside pickup programs might not even do that, the trucks and processing plants burning more resources than we save.) And if we’re running out of fresh water and fertile soil, and heating the atmosphere enough to throw life out of balance, slowing the descent a little is hardly going to matter.

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