Saturday, July 3, 2010

Learn the 3Rs again, for the first time.

You know what sucks? There are people out there who feel good about themselves for recycling only a fraction of the items they bring into their homes, and stop there. Recycling was never meant to be used as an easy way to be environmentally-friendly. Technically speaking, it's the second worst thing to do with garbage besides dumping it on a landfill (with the exception of burning it, I guess). But I guess it's appealing to take the relatively easy step of separating paper, glass, (some) plastics, and (some) metals from the rest of the trash. For many people, once it's in a blue bin, it's out of mind, and it's "job well done".

But the well-done job has unsavoury side-effects. How much water is used to turn paper back into pulp? Or to clean a glass bottle well enough to be refilled? How much energy is used to melt down plastics and metals? How clean is the energy powering the plant? There are different reports out there, some claiming recycling is more energy-efficient than manufacturing products from raw materials, but there are so many factors that need to be taken into account (type of material, process used, fuel efficiency of vehicles used in weekly curbside pickups, etc.) that it's almost impossible to decide which option is better. The bottom line is that both are wasteful compared to reducing consumption and reusing items within the home.

I'm sure this is all old hat to everyone. What really prompted me to write about the downsides of recycling is the unsettling news that the city I live in sells a significant amount of its recycling to China, where the local cheap labour force sorts and recycles it into things like shoes, which are then shipped back across the ocean and sold to us (because last year's styles are so... last year). What a convenient little system that supports poverty halfway across the world - perhaps I need to start a second blog that comments on the intersection of environmental issues and social injustice? Back to my point: I realize building a brand new recycling plant here is no small matter and probably quite expensive, but I tend to be the kind of person who hopes that creating jobs and supporting the local economy is more important. There I go being idealistic again...

My hope is that we can educate each other on recycling and realize that it's not the solution. I hate hearing people say, "at least I can recycle it" when they buy a bottle of water, as though that makes everything better. Of course, at the end of the day, I'd rather see an empty soft drink can in a blue bin than a trash can! But that's mainly because we know conclusively that recycling aluminum is much less energy-intensive that refining it from scratch. Not so for many other products. I'm just hoping we continually remind ourselves that recycling is the last and least beneficial of the 3Rs. It's a good starting point, but that's all it is.

So, to recap: first, reduce consumption. Buy less, and when you do buy, choose products with less packaging and carry them home in reusable bags (preferably not the ones made in China). Second, reuse items, whether for the same function (travel mug) or a new one (repurposing clothing as rags for cleaning). You can also regift and even upcycle useless scraps of material into higher quality products. Then, once you run out of clever and creative ideas, by all means, recycle instead of trashing your stuff!

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