I was recently a participant in a conversation with a man who runs a recycling center (let’s call him Thomas). I’ve got no particular beef with Thomas – he seemed pretty committed to overall environmental issues. And I’ve got no particular beef with recycling as an industry – it’s what we’ve got, and it serves a valuable function in the system we’re in. However, talking to him revealed some places where our perspectives really differ.
Thomas was very dismissive of glass products. To him, glass is a problem. In order to recycle glass (into more glass), he says that more energy is used that is used to make glass in the first place, making recycling it a negative-energy endeavor. I claimed that glass products were highly useful because they’re reusable. You don’t have to recycle them at all – you can just keep using them over and over again. He was very dismissive of this idea. He said, “Yeah, but who reuses glass?”
I sputtered a bit at this. Well, I do!
All the glass that comes into my kitchen gets reused one way or the other. The biggest item is the glass jars that food comes in. I save these, using them for drinking glasses, food storage, and packaging to hold other things around the house. Some of them are a step towards making things myself. For example, the gallon pickle jars I bought at the store become the pickle jars for pickkes I later make myself. The little glass jars that spices come in become the jars for herbs out of the garden or spice mixes of my own. Joshua and I try to buy things in glass jars rather than other materials, because we know we can find a way to use them. The glass jars my milk comes in go back to the store where I bought them, where they go on to house more milk – as many as 40 more jars of milk before they eventually reach the end of their life.
Other glass in my home is going to last forever, as long as I don’t drop it. I have glass food storage containers, for example. They have plastic lids, some of which have become unusable, but the glass bowls remain useful… forever. The glass pie pans and baking dishes, likewise. These items are far, far more durable than their plastic alternatives or “disposable” tin varieties.
Thomas was in love with plastic because it can be recycled into other products with a presumably good net-energy cost.
In “The Truth About ‘America Recycles Day'”, Beth Terry says:
“In the case of plastic, most of the material is downcycled into secondary products like carpeting and polar fleece that usually cannot be recycled further. It’s a slower process to the landfill. But it does nothing to reduce the need for virgin plastic to keep producing more disposable bags and containers and bottles.”
That really hits home for me. No amount of recycling changes how much effort is put into making those products in the first place. And the “slower process to the landfill” part is especially important. Just because you’ve recycled doesn’t mean you’ve kept anything out of a landfill. It just means you’ve slowed down the journey.
My biggest environmental soapbox is about disposable items. And this is where recycling is kind of a sticky subject for me. All the plastic recycling in the world doesn’t change that you’re creating more and more stuff. Disposable items are the centerpiece of a worldview and personal landscape that’s damaging to everything in its path. Tossing your one-use plastic water bottle in the recycling bin does nothing to change that.
As Beth Terry says:
“When most people tell you they recycle, what they mean is that they put their bottles, containers, paper, cans, etc. into the recycle bin instead of the trash bin. Then, they can forget about it. That’s not recycling. That’s sorting.”
And it’s not like recycling is this magical process where pixie dust whisks your trash into a pretty new product. A lot of our recycling involves shipping our stuff to China, where the toxic byproducts can poison other people and their environment.
What is the cost of shipping our trash far away? What is the cost to the health of other people? What is the cost to the environment? Recycling sounds “green”, but it’s really just a sloppy band-aid to an overwhelming problem.
What Can You Do?
I’m not really on a moral high-horse here. I generate trash like everyone else does. I know that it’s hard to make positive buying decisions when you’re surrounded by a culture that doesn’t really care.
I try to remember that “recycle” is the last resort choice. The other parts of the chain are REDUCE and REUSE. Reduce the amount of stuff coming into your home in the first place. Get away from disposable products by buying stuff that lasts. When you do buy things, reuse them. Get creative with stuff that would be trash and find new ways to use them.
Beth Terry says that the first step in the “reduce, reuse, recycle” chain is actually “refuse”. Whenever you can, just don’t buy stuff that’s going to be trash. This is the decision I came to about plastic grocery bags. Just. Stop. I recommend Beth’s entire site, My Plastic Free Life, for inspiration. Her plastic trash for 2010 came to just over 2 pounds, which is extraordinary!