By Caitlin Zera
The real problem begins with the phrase “throw away.” For the average person, “away” is a landfill or recycling processing plant he or she will never see, hear or smell. The waste generated from living our daily lives — everything from plastic pens to out-of-date textbooks — is simply whisked “away” to be buried, burned, recycled or, optimistically, reused.
The ambiguity of “away” has serious implications, not only with waste management accountability, but also eugenically. A society that does not understand what happens to its waste runs the risk of becoming removed from the entire process of wasting. Overconsumption, rampant obsolescence and an incredible amassment of debris is sure to follow.
We are avidly schooled in the eco-mantra of the Three R’s: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. There’s a reason recycling comes last in this anthem: it’s the least important. Its predecessors “Reduce” and “Reuse” have much more impact, though less visibly. The tangibility of recycling is attractive, but recycling can also serve to fuel the market for disposable items. Demanding fewer material items in general is the most environmentally impactful stand a consumer can take. Recycling should be a last resort, not a religion.
To find out where our waste goes is considered an unveiling or a revelation. Pictures or videos of growing trash mountains frighten us and billowing smoke clouds from incinerators appall us. In this setting, recycling seems like redemption. Compared to the damning eternity of a landfill, a recycling plant may seem like the supreme solution, a perfect purgatory with hope for resurrection constantly on the rise.
Recycling, though, does not solve this disparity between people and their waste. Items lovingly placed in the recycling bin also go far “away.” Though not a “trash” process, recycling is not without dirty little secrets of its own. Recycling requires time, labor and resources just as trash does. In some cases, the recycling option is more costly in all of these categories than regular trash disposal. Many disposable items are not truly recycled; they are down-cycled, meaning they never return to their original product. Such an instance would be a plastic bottle that is turned into casing for a pen, carpet fibers, or fabric for a jacket instead of being reborn as a new bottle.
However, the reality is many of our products are made for convenient disposability. Recycling is both the last resort and the best option. Recycling does offer a multitude of more-than-positive consequences, including conservation of virgin materials, diversion from landfill spaces and, often times, economic benefits.
At heart, recycling is about responsibility. When consumers purchase items, they are participating in a cycle that does not begin nor end with them. Manufacturers create these items long before they grace store shelves and are snatched up by shoppers. Landfills and recycling plants will handle these items long after their “useful” lives are terminated. Yet, no matter how brief the moment of ownership, consumers bear the responsibility to determine a product’s future for the better.
Despite its complexities, recycling is an effective path to questioning waste habits. Recycling is just one part of our current disposal system. Ultimately, we must rethink waste — not just the way we get rid of it but, more importantly, the way we generate it. Recycling will not save this planet or humankind, but it can be a good start toward a broader attitude change that just might.
Go to Earth911.com to find recycling resources in your area for any item at any time.