Hint: It’s probably the wrong things -- because by focusing on recycling, we risk missing the bigger picture.
As an eager consumer, and sometime producer, of garbage-related writing, I was thrilled to be invited to provide a blurb for Robin Nagle’s recently released Picking Up: On the Streets and Behind the Trucks with the Sanitation Workers of New York City. Plunging into the book with the zeal of a dumpster diver, I emerged utterly charmed by Nagle’s precise and often hilarious descriptions of how people function -- or not -- within the largest municipal garbage operation in the world. Nagle is an anthropologist (she teaches at New York University) interested in how people perceive sanitation workers and how those workers perceive themselves. In her first chapter, though, she takes a pot shot at recycling that’s hard to ignore.
Municipal recycling programs, she writes, “don’t do squat for environmental health. Yet curbside recycling . . . receives real resources and support while other, less obvious, more complicated choices that have the potential to make a real difference, like a more politically engaged citizenry and government incentives against various forms of large-scale pollution, are largely unmarked and so are ignored.”
Imagining howls from tree huggers armed with statistics on how recycling cuts energy use and reduces air and water pollution, I pressed the author, whom I had met nearly a decade earlier while researching my own garbage book, to elaborate.
“I believe curbside recycling is important,” Nagle told me, speaking with deliberation. “I believe that the behavior and attitudes and consciousness, the change and awareness that it helps bring about, is a crucial start. My criticism is that recycling is often not a start but an end point, and the conversation needs to move to a broader horizon that includes industrial and agricultural and manufacturing forms of waste that stand behind the products that we discard and put on the curb for collection.” Municipal waste, which ends up in landfills and incinerators, accounts for just 3 percent of the nation’s overall waste stream. The other 97 percent is generated upstream, remains largely invisible to us, and consists of materials such as mine tailings, manufacturing scraps, and wastes buried on factory property.
Not surprisingly, public-education campaigns focus on individual actions: don’t litter, recycle your cans, buy goods with recycled content, etc. “But the source of the much bigger crisis isn’t in the hands of any individual,” Nagle continued. “So as long as curbside recycling gets a disproportionate amount of attention and resources, we’re missing a really important piece of the picture. Even if we recycle perfectly, even if we were to divert all of our municipal waste to recycling, what about the 97 percent still out there?”
Nagle has a point, but recycling 100 percent of our municipal waste (however theoretical that is; the national recycling rate lingers at around 34 percent) is nothing to sneeze at. We would mine, harvest, and transport fewer raw materials (as we make new goods from old), thus generating fewer greenhouse gases and other pollutants. And we would generate less methane in landfills if we recycled or composted, instead of buried, paper and paperboard (which make up 28.5 percent of the municipal waste stream). More to Nagle’s point: cut production of new goods and we reduce the volume of those mine tailings and factory scraps.
Yes, recycling gets more public attention than the anti-capitalist “reduce” and the utterly unsexy “reuse.” (Though I offer huge props to the rappers Macklemore and Ryan Lewis for their infectious “Thrift Shop,” which celebrates “your granddad’s clothes” and calls out conspicuous consumption with a contemptuous “50 dollars for a T shirt? … I call that getting tricked by a business.” The song has reportedly boosted thrift shop sales.) Altogether, the 3R message seems a bit tired. Green groups advise individuals concerned about their environmental footprint to focus on our transportation and how we heat and light our homes. Hard to argue with that. But consumer goods, their use, and their packaging are responsible, over their life cycles, for 44 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions (including emissions generated overseas for products consumed here), according to a white paper commissioned by the Product Policy Institute. Clearly, how much and what kind of stuff we buy is important, especially when you consider that as standards of living rise around the planet, ever more consumers will follow in our heavy American footsteps.
Nagle’s complaint, shared by many, is that we focus on sorting single-use plastic bottles instead of questioning their existence. Short of mounting the barricades and denouncing the drumbeat of economic growth, what can we do? We can address the impacts of consumption with, to name just one tool, life-cycle analyses (or LCAs), which assess the cradle-to-grave environmental impacts of a product, from raw material extraction through manufacturing, distribution, use, and disposal. (The European Union has launched a pilot LCA program for “green” consumer products and organizations.)
LCAs may make it easier for consumers to pick the “greener” product, but they’re not going to be truly useful until every product has one, and governments use them to take the next step: require manufacturers to internalize the negative social and environment impacts they’ve long passed on to the public. (For example, the pollutants they’ve discharged into our atmosphere or the packaging they’ve tasked municipalities with collecting and disposing of, at taxpayer cost.) Yes, products may become more expensive as manufacturers research and develop alternatives to high-impact goods, but those companies will also compete, on a newly level playing field, to provide the best product at the best price. In this scheme, bad (polluting or hard-to-recycle) products will cost more, and good products will cost less -- the opposite of the current reality.
This idea isn’t new, of course. People have been writing and talking about such regulations, incentives, and economic signals for years, most recently in the debate over a carbon tax. The idea isn’t politically popular. But many economists believe it’s the only way to reverse our current carbon-spewing trajectory.
As Nagle makes clear with her jab at curbside recycling, the personal isn’t always where it’s at. We need to lift our gaze from our own kitchen cans and consider the political pressure points that could force more significant changes. A system that obscures its upstream impacts and continually whisks individuals’ contributions from the curb is designed to keep us in the dark. And to keep the vast consumer waste stream -- and its associated revenue -- flowing.
Image: Desmond Talkington