Archive for November 2019

Reduce, Reuse, Return to the Earth

November 13, 2019

I’ve been recycling garbage most of my adult life. That means I’ve put certain objects in different bins to separate it from the trash, with the belief that they would be trucked off to some factory, which would turn them back into raw materials for manufacturing. But today I’m starting to feel like I’ve been hoodwinked.

There’s been a lot of good reporting on the subject. You can look at 60 minutes or NPR’s Planet Money. The jury may still be out on the general subject but it’s starting to look like recycling was a bad idea to begin with. It certainly doesn’t make economic sense and it doesn’t seem to make ecological sense either.

Recycling plastics, for instance.

I was a young reporter when I attended a news conference in Minneapolis hosted by Hennepin County and some charming plastics industry minions who were going to show us how easy and sensible it was to prepare plastics for recycling. A woman smiled as she took a gallon milk jug, crunched it up and dropped in the correct colored bin. It may have been a blue bin but I can’t remember. This was in the ’90’s. A long time ago.

I’m willing to bet that plastic recycling was a scam from the start. The people behind plastic recycling knew it didn’t make sense but this was a way for us to not feel so bad about buying plastic. Therefore they could continue making it out of petroleum. Is that shit recycled? Looks to me like it ends up in landfills, as it always has or, worse yet, floating the Pacific Ocean’s great garbage patch.

Today, I throw plastic in the trash because I’d rather see it at the Miramar Landfill than floating in the seas or shipped out to God knows which country where they do God knows what with it.

The three R’s of solid waste management used to be Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. They should be Reduce, Reuse, Return to the earth.

The answer might make you think I’m in favor of landfills. I will say that with landfills, at least, you know where the trash has gone. You can see it pile up. You can smell it. There’s no slight of hand when it comes to garbage dumps.

But just burying it doesn’t mean it returns to the earth. That only happens when trash degrades in an efficient way that’s kind to the earth and the groundwater.  And I think this has to start with a long goodbye to plastic packaging and products and that’s not going to be easy and it will take a while.

This wonderful, durable waterproof material we call plastic has become part of virtually everything we make. It’ll take some brilliant environmental engineering to find replacements, and it’s going to take a willingness by consumers and governments to move in the right direction.

This old earth will be fine and ultimately it will find a way to reclaim all that is cast upon it. But it would be a bummer if we poor humans have to live in a plastic trash bin for the rest of our existence. The good book says “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” It’s what happens to us and it has to happen to our trash also.