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Reduce, Re-Use, Recycle

Bankrupting the Planet

Compared to our ancestors of not so long ago – and the majority of regular folks around the world today – most Americans live a life of unimaginable luxury. The bad news is that this lifestyle we take for granted is bankrupting the life-support systems of the only planet known to support life. 

“Historically,” writes Lester Brown, founder of the Worldwatch Institute, “we lived off the interest generated by the Earth’s natural capital assets, but we are now consuming those assets. We have built an environmental ‘bubble’ economy, one in which economic output is artificially inflated by overconsumption of the Earth’s natural assets. The challenge today is to deflate the bubble before it bursts.”

Recycling our household waste is not going to “save the planet.” But for many people it is the beginning of a personal journey of awareness and responsibility that can lead, step by step, to evolutionary social and political change.

Evolution of a Recycler

When my company’s Recycling Coordinator moved to California in the early 1990s, I was offered the job. After I was laid off in 2010, I continued in that capacity as a contractor while coordinating the recycling at the next company that hired me, too. By the time I retired in 2020, I had been recycling professionally (though part-time at both places) for almost 30 years. 

As I worked to educate and motivate my co-workers to recycle, I began to see that recycling is only the first step toward a sustainable society, and a baby step at that. Disposable packaging is still waste, I realized, even if we recycle it. As I sorted and hauled off load after load of recyclables, in my personal relationship with waste I was already taking the next step. 

I foresee that the famous “three R’s” will eventually expand as more and more people see recycling as a last resort. They will reduce unnecessary purchases and re-use everything they can, and finally will simply refuse disposables of any kind. If something malfunctions, they will pay for a repairre-investing in their investment – rather than chucking it into the landfill. They might even re-purpose an item, give it a new life rather than just recycling its materials. 

The Myth of Plastic Recycling

Along with pollution, deforestation, species extinction, ozone depletion, climate change, et al, the issue of “solid waste” – the toxicity of garbage – has gradually become a major concern among individuals and at every level of government. By 2013, the global recycling industry was grossing $500 billion a year and employed more people than any business sector except agriculture. 

Then the crash came. In 2018 a sudden change of policy in China, which had cornered the global recycling market, threw a monkeywrench into the industry. In 2020, the media began trumpeting the futility of recycling in headlines like “The Myth of Recycling” and “Recycling Is Garbage.” 

The rumors were exaggerated, of course; all the furor was solely about plastic. Investigative journalists had exposed the recycling of plastics as more of a hype than a reality from the start. But the headlines neglected to mention that paper, metal, and glass continue to be harmlessly and profitably recycled, as they have been since long before the invention of plastic. 

All recyclers know that recycling plastic is problematic; the only real solution is to make less and re-use it instead of making more and trying to recycle it all. The rest of the world is rapidly catching on as images of seagulls and sea turtles tangled in plastic go viral. But recycling itself is as popular as ever. The ultimate effect of China’s new policy was to trigger new investment in the U.S. recycling industry, which had been unable to compete. Innovative new technologies promise to make even plastic recycling a reality as well. 

“Consumer” Is an Attitude

The deeper issue, as Leslie Brown notes, is overconsumption. A “consumer” is not just someone who goes shopping. “Consumer” is an attitude, and the attitude is optional. To shop not as a consumer but as a citizen of Planet Earth requires understanding the difference between true need and the artificial desires cultivated by advertising. In addition to considering price, quality, taste, nutrition, convenience, value, service, etc., we must weigh all those factors against each product’s impact on the ecosphere. 

For many people, this understanding begins with recycling. At first, tossing a can or bottle into the recycling instead of the trash is a decision – we are acting consciously, based on our awareness and sense of responsibility. But before long it becomes an automatic reflex – being conscious. We no longer have to think about it. 

This shift in attitude from “consumer” to global citizen is far more important than the act of recycling itself. Though only a first step toward genuinely reducing our impact, it represents a totally new paradigm. We have graduated from acting solely as an individual to acting as part of a greater whole. It’s called “conscious evolution,” and it is accelerating around the globe as people free themselves from mindless materialism and self-centered consumerism.

Like every other industry, recycling is market-driven and therefore subject to the law of supply and demand. But unlike most other industries, the demand for recycling is consciousness-driven: a function of growing awareness. Regardless of market fluctuations, people who have claimed responsibility for their waste will not go back. I see the popularity of recycling in an individualistic society like ours as clear proof of the continuing evolution of human consciousness. Whether we are evolving fast enough to head off total ecological collapse, no one knows. But recycling is a fundamental piece of the solution. 

Zero Waste & the Circular Economy

The ultimate expression of this evolving ethic is the “Zero Waste” movement. It starts with things everyone can do – carrying a re-usable water bottle, shopping bag, coffee cup, takeout container, even a drinking straw, reducing our reliance on single-use throwaways. But the costs of municipal trash disposal and recycling are driving municipal governments to work toward Zero Waste as well, including my home town of Atlanta. 

As individuals, we certainly benefit from the vast array of consumer goods and the convenience of disposable packaging. But the consumer economy was designed not for our benefit, but to maximize corporate profits. So why should recycling be our responsibility? Why should the costs of municipal recycling be borne by taxpayers?

In Europe, where governments are in charge rather than corporations, solid waste is governed by a policy called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). The ecological impact of a product is the responsibility of the company that produces it, from the sourcing of raw materials to final disposal. The goal of EPR is the creation of a “Circular Economy,” where every waste product becomes the raw material for something new – imitating the seamless cycles of nature itself. In the U.S., corporations talk about the Circular Economy, but so far, it’s just talk.

Recycling the System

Disposable plastic has become a major issue driving the evolution of human consciousness. The European Union is one of many governments around the world – including eight U.S. states – that have banned single-use disposables such as plastic shopping bags. In 2017, the United Nations added plastic to an international treaty regulating hazardous waste. And a movement is afoot to negotiate a comprehensive treaty addressing the proliferation of plastic. 

Several US cities and states have passed measures invoking EPR and the Circular Economy. The Break Free from Plastic Act would bring many of these innovations to the federal level, including a national container deposit system, a minimum requirement for recycled content in plastic products, restrictions on exporting waste plastic, a temporary moratorium on the production of virgin plastic, and a ban on single-use food containers and utensils. 

But in the USA, where corporations are in charge rather than governments, enlightened solid waste policy will have to wait in line behind enlightened policies on climate change, immigration, police reform, race relations, etc., until We the People take control. That will take us to an entirely new level of evolution, where burgeoning ecological consciousness will spread exponentially and change the course of history. 

Sooner or later, the journey of expanding awareness and responsibility must lead us beyond our personal waste to the next step: taking action to change society. Solid waste policy is only one of many points where global citizens can plug in to push human evolution forward. Like every other environmental and political issue, real solutions require wrestling control away from corporate profiteers and restoring the power of the democratic process. 

The future of humankind depends on turning consumers back into citizens – and then, as citizens, joining forces to tackle the political and economic imperatives that drive the industry of planetary ecocide. I invite you to join us.

Take Action and Learn More

Our political, social, and environmental concerns are all connected at the root. I have concentrated my own efforts on the three areas listed below,  Every issue is vitally important, and for each, one or more citizen groups has formed to work for fairness and sanity. Pick the one that calls to you and give what you can. Time, money, energy, creativity – it all counts.

Stephen Wing

Poet, activist and author Stephen Wing lives in Atlanta with his wife Dawn Aura and assorted pets. Read more about him here.

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