Recycling: a Crutch for Our Conscience?

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By David Groves

Many of us remember the first time we were introduced to the blue bin. Depending on where you lived in the late 1980s or 1990s, a curbside recycling program was probably established in your municipality (unless you’re still waiting for one). We separated out our glass, metals, plastics and paper, placed our blue bin on the curb and our obligations toward a sustainable world were satisfied. As long as the plastic water bottle ended up in the recycling bin, our conscience was cleared to consume as many as our paycheck allowed.

Given that the national recycling rate is under 34 percent, it’s clear that many of us don’t bother to recycle at all. Others maintain the attitude that by using the blue bin, we’ve done our environmental deed for the day. This is in part the fault of the green movement of the 80s and 90s, which unintentionally marketed this idea to encourage recycling. And like any first impression, it stuck. To many, municipal recycling programs provide the false sense that we are doing enough. This may have been the case decades ago. Unfortunately, as our world fills up—with both people and the natural resources we’ve transformed—the environmental problems we face require much more than just using the right colored collection bin.

A way to compare apples to apples in the complex world of environmental responsibility is to look at the reduced carbon footprint of recycling versus other energy-saving activities. As a baseline, most communities that have municipal recycling accept glass, aluminum, tin, plastics #1 and #2 and unsoiled paper and cardboard. If one recycles all of that material over the course of a year, his/her carbon footprint will shrink by about one-third of a ton of CO2.

Yet, there are many other ways to reduce that same amount of carbon emissions:

  • take one less flight of 630 miles in a year (e.g. San Francisco to Salt Lake City or Philadelphia to Atlanta)
  • drive 900 fewer miles (in an average American car)
  • stop eating meat for one meal per day
  • turn your thermostat down 2 degrees (F) during the winter months
  • limit your purchases of unnecessary items in the first place—like bottled water or canned beverages—regardless of the recyclability of the packaging

Let it be clear: the purpose of this post is not to discourage a single bottle or can from making it into a blue bin. Recycling is immensely important, as it significantly reduces society’s need for virgin raw materials and slows the pace at which refuse collects in our rapidly filling landfills. But it must be understood by anyone who cares about their children’s future that using those blue bins is only one of many tasks that must be undertaken to lessen the impacts of climate change. We cannot use recycling as a crutch for our conscience.

[Image credit: ariwriter, Flickr]

4 responses

  1. Very important reminder. And I don’t think it’s just the consumers who have fallen under the sway of “I saved the earth by recycling”–I’m sure government and industry are happy to have us thinking that way, as it doesn’t encourage us to think about the other actions mentioned in this article–all of which are much more significant than recycling–flying and driving less, eating less meat, buying less stuff. Can you imagine a politician suggesting any of these actions? It’s up to us to push ourselves toward a sustainable–and livable–future. The higher ups are focused on the next election, which is all about improving our (material) well-being….

  2. Many cities in fiscal distress will kill off recycling before anything else. And that is also most likely part of why there is such a small percentage of people recycling.

  3. Thank you. As one of many who helped create and market those original programs, I could not agree more with your assessment. There are a few standouts, but most municipal programs today are but pale shadows of the forward thinking programs of the past. They’ve become thoroughly bureaucratized, and recycle the same tired and misleading “save the world” messages as they did 10 years ago – if they put out any messages at all.

    Meanwhile, many people believe as you say – that their environmental deed is done by throwing their single-use excess trash into a recycling bin. Little do they know or care that it will be picked up by a huge truck, taken to a huge separation plant, then shipped to one of several far-off processors, to (hopefully) become an ingredient in another industrial process. Prevention is the answer, and it is the area that we’ve done least well at shifting the national mindset.

    In the waste arena, exciting innovation with real bottom-line gains is happening on the corporate side. Read examples here in Triple Pundit most every week. This is rubber meets the road – where the benefit of efficiency (i.e. prevention tons and reducing toxicity) goes straight to company bottom-line, and the recycle stream is pre-consumer (Read: clean, valuable, produced at few locations.

    How can we bring creativity and excitement and measurable behavior change back to residential sustainability?

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