Since I’ve been on my own, I’ve got really lazy about recycling, and for someone who, in most respects, takes her responsibility to the environment seriously, that’s very bad.
It came about due to a bout of depression over winter 2013/14. I went through a phase of not caring about anything much, and putting in the extra effort to wash and sort items for recycling just seemed like too much effort, when I could just chuck it in the bin. Plus, there were no recycling facilities within walking distance, and I also couldn’t find the motivation to get my neglected bike out of the shed, dust it off, and ride it.
But I have to admit it’s gone on far too long.
Since I can’t walk to town now (well, I can, but walking back uphill with bags of shopping is no fun) I use my bike every time I need to go shopping, so there’s really no excuse for not separating out the recycling and dropping it at the collection point I pass on my way to town. There are facilities there for paper and card, plastic, cartons, cans, glass, and even clothes and shoes.
For most people just starting out with recycling, the answer is simple. It reduces the amount of waste that goes into landfill. Some years ago, my father made a visit to a landfill site, with a van full of trade waste that the local authorities refused to collect. He had never been interested in recycling, but that one visit led him to buy several plastic boxes (the irony of which is not lost on me) and label them neatly for the sorting of waste for recycling. From that day on, anything that could be recycled was sorted into one of those boxes to be collected or taken to the nearest drop off point.
Most people have seen images like the one below. Mountains of waste pile up and up towards the sky, as humanity’s legacy to the Earth. Much of it is plastic, and it won’t break down in any time scale that’s meaningful to us. Gulls swoop down and feast on food remains and anything else that might be edible. Their screams are deafening.
Dad said it was the stench that got to him. He had never smelled anything like it.
I’m lucky enough to have never been to a landfill site, and perhaps that’s part of the reason I can become lazy about recycling. I haven’t seen humanity’s detritus for myself.
But there are other reasons to reduce, reuse and recycle, and these are perhaps even more important.
The culture of waste
Wealthy western society has a problem. While people in poorer countries are very familiar with the need to repair, repurpose and reuse goods, in a variety of creative and innovative ways, we have been learning, over the last 50 years or so, that the only way forward is to replace. While my grandparents and great grandparents learned how to “make do and mend” during London’s blitz, my generation has been taught how to throw away and spend.
Change is encouraged, fashions move fast. And I’m not talking about just clothes here. Look around your home for a moment. Whether you are someone who follows trends or not (I have never been), it’s hard to escape the fact that your household furnishings, colour schemes, kitchen appliances, and even the cars you drive, rapidly go out of style. To stay “up to date” we are encouraged to replace these things often.
In case you are one of those people who doesn’t care about being in style, the manufacturing process has been redesigned to incorporate an element of planned obsolescence. I discovered this when building my first bicycle. When asking for advice on parts on an internet forum, I discovered the quality of parts is not what it used to be. Whereas they used to be constructed entirely of metal, they now tend to be mostly metal, with one critical element made of plastic. When the plastic element fails (which it does because plastic becomes brittle over time) the whole part has to be replaced. This is our culture’s way of forcing us to replace rather than recycle.
Think about it. Have you ever tried to get a household appliance repaired, only to find the cost of the repair is twice the cost of a replacement?
While dumping all this broken and obsolete stuff in landfill sites is bad, it may not be as harmful as the other end of the process. Every new item that’s made, whether it’s a new car or a plastic bag to carry shopping home from the supermarket, uses some of the planet’s resources. Those resources are limited. So is the energy used in the manufacturing process. Just a hundred or so years ago, we were a (relatively) small number of humans on a resource-filled planet. Now things have turned the other way. We are reaching the point where there are not enough resources – energy and “stuff” (like metal, wood, etc) – to go around. Energy is the biggest problem, which is the reason for controversies over fracking and tar sands. (You want the lights on, don’t you?) Metals are not far behind, which explains the busy trade in scrap metal.
To address this, we need to focus not on waste, but on consumption. The less new stuff we buy, the less packaging we accept, the less we use our cars, etc, the less demand we are placing on the planet’s rapidly dwindling resources. This is the other end of the recycling process, and this seems to be where it starts. Before buying, ask yourself one question:
Do I really need this?
Look for ways to reuse and repurpose things you already have to achieve the same goals.
Reduce, reuse and recycle is not going to solve all the Earth’s problems – they are too many and too big for that – but every little step we take to reduce our consumption, and reduce our waste, will help.