Why Recycling is Bullshit -- and Why I Do it Anyway

It might come as a surprise that I watch network news in the morning. After all, network news is a empty shit heap of mindless info- and edu-tainment, bathed in corporate spin, a fawning paean to all that's conformist in the world... which is actually what makes it so much fun to watch.

Every morning the spouse and I grab coffee and loll around in bed watching CBS this Morning -- not because it's better (it might be a hair less fluffy, but the bar's pretty low here), but because it has such fun personal dynamics. It's like watching two shows: the blind smiling coverage on the surface and a seething underbelly of micro-expressions and aggression. My only limit is that I will not watch presidential election coverage, which means that I'll be consuming less and less media of any kind in self defense over the coming 20 months. I just can't stomach it.

The other reason we watch the show is to play a game called: "what's not in the news." Because it's an excellent barometer of what "they" don't want you to know.

Introducing the "They" in this particular conspiracy

So we watch, cell-phones in hand, hunting down the stuff absent from the stories presented and gleefully sharing it with one another. Of course, the really interesting stuff is conspicuously absent from the news entire. It was days of full-scale rioting before Ferguson got a mention (we had a running bet on how long it would take). When shit really hits the fan, Twitter is probably your best bet for on the ground reporting.

But what they don't tell you about the stories that they're covering is also extremely useful. For example, California is rapidly running out of water and taking most of the Southwest with it (note that link is from LAST YEAR, it's only likely to get worse. So the Governor instituted mandatory restrictions and authorized increases in water rates to encourage conservation. See the video on that page, the bit where he suggestions not flushing all the time is particularly amusing. This story ran prominently on last week's morning news (April 2). It took until this morning (April 6) to mention the part about how the big agribusiness uses 80% of the state's water are exempt. They even mentioned how some growers aren't planting all their acreage. And their spin was that we have to protect the food supply.

But here are the more interesting bits they conspicuously left out:
They've got a D&D game after the protest

And don't worry too much about the farmers. Here's a quote I ran across from the Times of all places:

"...the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, a regional agency that provides water for much of the area, authorized up to $71 million to buy water from farmers in the Sacramento Valley, who get it from a state agency. In some cases, the farmers were paid three times as much as in 2010, the last time this was done. With those kinds of prices, farmers say it makes more sense to take the money and leave more land unplanted."

And this is why recycling is bullshit. Seriously. Here we have a state that's literally RUNNING OUT OF WATER. They want to increase water rates for poor people and suggest that "if it's yellow, let it mellow." All the while:
  • giving a pass to giant monoculture agribusinesses,
  • and buying back their protected water allotment at inflated prices so they don't have to grow anything,
  • and allowing a corporation to extract their most precious resource and sell it back to their own citizens at a profit. 
The fuck.

It's always been the same game. Corporations cause massive environment damage while individuals separate their trash. Corporations off gas massive pollutants and we spend more on hybrid vehicles. Corporations overuse and pollute the water and we take shorter showers. It is a crock. A scam. A shell game to make us feel like we're doing our part to save the world. "I'm doing my part" -- so nothing else matters. The rationale was always "if everyone did it, we really could change the world..." Yeah, but everyone doesn't do it. The little people do it. And even if all the little people in the world recycled everything, it wouldn't make up for the giant mess that our corporate "citizens" make. So unless we're pushing them to be better actors, our actions are necessarily of small impact.

In fact, there was just a piece about recycling on NPR (3 April). When a company gathers your yogurt containers and old newspapers (if anyone still reads the paper, that is) they don't actually turn them into new things. No, they sell them to China to be turned into new things. I probably shouldn't have been as shocked at this as I was. Maybe I knew it but blanked it out of my memory because it was too disturbing. Just picture all the used US yogurt tubs and plastic bags, packed on container ships and traveling, at least 9300 miles (Portland OR to Shanghai China -- the short route) in order to be turned into new plastic stuff that's then shipped another 9300 miles back. How much oil does that take? What's the carbon footprint?

At least we're providing good jobs for China, right? Right?

In fact, recycling centers are going out of business at an alarming rate. The CEO of Waste Management called it a crisis on the NPR piece. Why?

A) because the cheap price of oil makes recycling plastic more expensive than buying new plastic
B) because the strong dollar makes selling our paper to China impossible (they'd rather buy "cheap" European recycled papers)

So recycling plants go out of business... because they are businesses. Not non-profits. Not charities.

Amusing anecdote: When I was growing up in a small town in the desert, you could not recycle your newspapers (back in the days before the Internet, kids, everyone read the paper -- not just pretentious hipsters and old people). Because in order to make the sale and transport of the old papers cost effective, they had to store many tons of them in a warehouse. And in the dry hot summers, the warehouse would end up spontaneously combusting like a grain silo in a drought. The building burned down like three times before they gave up on the scheme.

Let's be frank. I live in the most resource consuming nation in the world. The nation who stubbornly refuses to get on the global warming bandwagon. The one rapidly falling behind in alternative energy (I was in Germany last year, and it's pretty much entirely made of solar panels at this point). The one who's on the side of corporations exploiting both people and the planet, everywhere. I'm a part of that machine, whether I like it or not. I use more than someone in Europe... just by existing. Adding kitchen waste to my yard waste bin for composting WILL NOT SAVE THE WORLD. It just won't.

We still recycle. My community makes it very easy. They only come get our actual garbage every other week, while picking up the bottles, paper and plastic, and yard/kitchen waste weekly and for no extra cost. Easy. Besides, I'm not a ass. I really don't want to claim to care and toss my stuff in our landfill. It helps on a local level. What I can't decide is whether it harms on a global one.

When you look at sustainable actions you can take, consider whether they will actually make things better in your neighborhood and community, because they probably won't globally and the impact problem may be too complex to discern with the data you have. For example, the yard waste and kitchen scraps collected locally are composed by the city (which can handle scraps like meat that your home compost heap can't) and sold in local stores to pay for the program. Win/win/win.

California is responsible for a huge portion of the nation's fruit, veggie, and nut production. But if the drought continues, they won't be for much longer. The state can no longer support its agricultural load, let alone all the people who depend on it. If you live in California, taking shorter showers isn't going to cut it. Maybe a better plan is moving someplace that has an environment that can actually support its population (at least in the near term).

Don't tell me that's too hard, extreme, or crazy. We're originally from the Southwestern US desert. Both our extended families are still there. The the area is in the middle of a 100 year, 50 year, 20 year, and 10 year drought. Sure, global warming, but there's also evidence that this is normal and the past 100 years are the anomaly. And that's why we don't live there now.

If you don't live in California, the best thing you can do is buy from your local farmers. They need your support and soon they might be all we've got. That's a personal change that can have real local impact. And local impact is probably all we can reasonably hope for.

It's not that I don't believe in pushing for real change to save the world (legislative governance, corporate sustainability, taxes for alternative fuels). I do. But recycling is bullshit... and of course I do it anyway.

Comments

  1. I recycle too... but at least part of my waste stream winds up going not to the recycling center but into the parts bins at the MakerSpace I run for my school. Paper towel and toilet paper rolls become trays for marble runs; (Cleaned-scrubbed!) styrofoam trays from the meat department become material for teaching stamp-making and printing; Yogurt tubs, plastic bottles, orange crates get cut up and turned into parts of other things... my next goal is to collect aluminum cans for a miniature foundry, and steel cans for tool making. I figure that this is good material for teaching kids how to use cheap or free materials (that are in theory going to be shipped elsewhere, anyway) to learn about the world. So far it's working.

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  2. This is so great! We have a nonprofit here in town called Scrap that does the same kind of thing, though they are looking more for used craft supplies. There's also a place called the rebuilding center that collects and resells used building supplies. This kind of local reuse makes a lot of sense.

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