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Recycling: What’s Wrong?

by John Losch
June 28, 2018

How we approach these issues is ultimately decided by their economic significance.

 This is my opinion on recycling.  I have no expertise in the subject, but after eighty-six years I may have some experience that could contribute to the discussion.   What are the issues?  Obviously we are trying to separate what is truly disposable – trash - from what can and should be re-used. 

Actually we are trying to separate three kinds of waste.  There is stuff of limited value that at the same time is self-recycling or bio-degradable, including brush, leaves or food waste, which has no major effect on either the economy or the environment  Next is the refuse of our society that contains recoverable basics such as metals, paper, perhaps some plastics, and glass. That still leaves us with what is neither redeemable nor will “go away,” such as many plastics, other petroleum waste, and nuclear waste, the later being another subject.

How we approach these issues is ultimately decided by their economic significance.  It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.  Environmental issues become a secondary matter, because the cost of salvage combined with the cost of getting rid of the “unsalvageable” takes precedence. Consequently, the question becomes one of weighing the cost of using products in commerce that are environmentally harmful because of their convenience versus the cost of “cleaning up after these products” because after use they are no longer useful. 

There are alternatives to using environmentally harmful products.  I remember when nearly everything my mother brought home from her weekly shopping trip was either in a paper bag, or wrapped in butcher’s paper.  Most of what was neither eaten nor composted ended up being burned in our wood burning kitchen stove as dinner was being cooked.  We lived in a suburban area where the weekly “garbage” collection was mostly coal ashes from central heating and some hot water systems, or non-combustible waste: tin cans, discarded household items, glass jars, all piled up in the municipal dump.

I do not suggest that we revert to the mid 20th century, but I do suggest that modern science provides us with numerous combustible and bio-degradable alternatives to abundantly used plastics and other quasi-indestructible products.   All those are foreseeably permanent waste products of our current commercial and consumer society.  We need to replace them with known, available, and environmentally friendly alternatives.  

Forty years ago a foresighted scientist friend of mine said that the day would come when people would be mining large city dumps for the metals in them.  It’s possible he was right.  Landfills,  the “modern” version of the dump, squander land and recoverable resources that are recyclable. 

Landfills should be a thing of the past as a place to bury trash, particularly in populous areas.  In many landfills even biodegradables don’t biodegrade because the pressure and lack of oxygen preserves them, potentially for centuries. They have found perfectly preserved dirty diapers from the time when disposable diapers were first invented.  Mankind should not be working to combine the earth’s finite resources into a mixture of useless waste.

Fire is the great purifier.  After we burn off what is combustible, it becomes practical to separate remaining materials.  Today much of our combustible waste can be and is being used to generate electricity.  While not totally effective, co-generation fires put their combustion gasses through “scrubbers” that reduce the harmful gasses of combustion otherwise emitted into the atmosphere.  After the burn, the residue is sorted so that recyclables can be reclaimed. 

As a society we need to be thinking not about  how to get rid of used plastic bags, but how to get rid of using plastic bags at all.   Of course, it is the same for bottles and numerous other “conveniences” that come at an ultimately very inconvenient price. 

I don’t think the need to recycle that is a consequence of our life-style is as much a sign of selfishness as the fact we have been mislead by the siren-song of apparent convenience or efficiency.  I have no problem with a plastic bottle that can be cost effectively recycled.  But do not forget to include in this calculation a serious hidden cost.  What is the cost to the environment of our handy plastic or glass bottles floating around in the ocean, lying un-retrieved along the roads,  or buried, with a possible half-life of five hundred years in a landfill?  What is the cost of cleaning up this mess?  These costs need to be included in the cost of voluntary recycling. 

We have two options.  First, the real cost of recycling needs to be determined, and the cost displayed.  These costs would have to be borne mostly by property taxpayers, even though it should be shown as a separate item on the tax bill.  Actually, this is more than a little unfair because responsible recycling property owners would be paying for the cleanup costs caused by litterers of all kinds.

Option two: I understand that in Germany the price of chemicals includes the anticipated cost of their disposal, so the end-user has paid for his “mess” before it has been made.  If the cost of that plastic bottle included the cost of its ultimate disposal (recycle or retrieval from litter), so that the real cost of the bottle was prohibitive, the plastic bottle would soon be replaced by a more affordable container.  Consumers would force that reform.

There are additional options, all variants on the options above, but they are all variations on who is taxed to pay for what part of which cost of our effluent, and by what branch of government has that responsibility. 

There is a required deposit on numerous containers in many of the United States.  It is not universal, and it has not prevented littering, although the concept has done more good than harm.  Un-reclaimed deposits help to pay for clean up.  No system is likely to be entirely perfect, but we need to discourage waste because it is costly in so many impractical ways.  It will get his attention when a user knows and directly pays the real cost of what he uses. 

Finally, we have to abandon the use of fossil fuel. That means petroleum, in all its uses, if we want to maintain life on this planet as we know it.  That means no more oil or coal power generation, petroleum fueled engines, oil heating, and producing our beloved plastic bottles.  Some have estimated that the earth will run out of fossil fuel by2050.  It may not matter, because if we continue at the present rate of consumption, in less than thirty years the side effects of our dependency may succeed irreversibly to assure the premature end of human life on earth.  We are committing suicide.

Our immediate goal needs to be conversion to consumables that do not need to be recycled.  That’s probably never entirely possible, but certainly an urgent objective. 

Our ultimate goal has to be to stop and undo, to the extent we still can, the damage to the environment that sustains human life.  If we care about future generations we must try.  Do you want to imagine your beautiful child or grandchild slowly suffocating in an environmental atmosphere you could have prevented?  Albuterol inhalers in their red plastic dispensers will not be enough.  



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Comments (4)

I am a few decades younger than Mr. Losch and remember when items in stores were not covered in plastic and cardboard. One risks injury to open them, then puzzles over whether any of the wrappings can be recycled. I know much of this came about due to fears of tampering, but perhaps manufacturers could be persuaded to cut back.

- Mary Curran | 7/6/18 2:23 PM

Thank you for your opinion. It is time to take real action. I do recycle it seems like such a small thing to do. When I owned a home we had it evaluated and made energy-saving changes. The sun is a wonderful source of energy. I can see plastic is a big problem. Some toys were made in the 70ies and we knew they would never district and yet we made them.

- Jean Morrissey | 6/28/18 3:10 PM

The German concept of paying for the disposal costs on initial purchase (also used in many places for electronics recycling costs) is tempting, but the money paid up front needs to "make it" to the recycler, rather than just fall into the corporate profits of the manufacturer. This is much easier when the product is electronic, as there's known manufacturer, with retail outlets, who is required to recycle the product when it is returned. I'm not sure how well this would work with milk or yogurt containers, or, even worse, anything you might buy at Target or WalMart, since the Chinese manufacturer may not be identifiable or even still in business by the time you try to recycle your broken folding beach chair.

- peter simpson | 6/28/18 7:08 AM

Well said Sir...

- Ben Clarkson | 6/28/18 7:08 AM



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