We’re running out of stuff to make our stuff. If we want to continue to be a mature industrial society, we’d better start recycling everything we can.
By Francesca Rheannon
Have you seen the commercial with the guy running down the street to get away from his “stuff,” which is all glommed together and coming after him? Maybe he should think about recycling it.
As I wrote in my previous post, we are running out of the materials we have been exploiting over the past several centuries to create the cornucopia of consumer products we enjoy.
Like Peak Oil, “Peak Everything,” as Richard Heinberg calls it, doesn’t mean we don’t have the resources; it just means that they are getting progressively harder and more expensive to get and, in many cases, their quality is declining. The environmental cost of getting them out of the ground is also going up.
Food & Water, High Tech, & … Breathing Endangered?
Here are some examples:
- From declines in formerly easily available minerals, like phosphorus (a basic component of fertilizer) to water, we are running out of the stuff we need to feed ourselves.
- We are running out of minerals that make advanced technologies like cell phones, computers and, yes, even “sustainable” green tech like wind turbines and electric vehicle batteries, possible (e.g., “peak lithium.”) Green tech and the virtual universe might not be all that sustainable, after all.
- We are running out of the forests we use to create packaging, as well as newspapers and books (OK, they’re migrating online, but see bullet point #2.) And, oh yes, we need forests to breathe (they create oxygen.)
We can confront this emerging crisis the easy way or the hard way. The hard way has been described as “the long emergency” (James Howard Kunstler) or the “post-peak world” (John Michael Greer), but the concept has been around at least since publication of The Limits To Growth by the Club of Rome in 1972. The hard way will have our descendants (and some of us) living lives that are nasty, brutish and short (tip o’ the hat to Thomas Malthus.)
Salvage Or Recycling?
We can try to get by on the basis of a “salvage economy” – digging degraded materials out of trash heaps or using cheap, exploitable labor to scrounge materials (a scenario explored in Paolo Bacigalupe’s terrific Young Adult dystopian novel, Shipbreaker). And no doubt, that kind of economy will have a place in our future.
But we can also start right now and do it the relatively easy way: by recycling on a massive, society-wide level, efficiently and at an affordable cost shared by producers and consumers alike.
We may not yet be at the point of recycling our urine, as some are urging to recover phosphorus and water – but we may well get there before too long. Meanwhile, we can do much, much better right now. Here are some fun facts about recycling:
- Getting our recycling rate to 75 percent from the current 35 percent would create 1.5 million jobs.
- Recycling would save 95 percent of the energy used to make aluminum cans from new material.
- Recycling 70 percent of our newspapers would save 175 million trees.
- Americans throw away 25,000,000 plastic bottles every hour.
EPR Is A Solution – If Companies Can Be Persuaded To Get On Board
Last week, I reported that Nestlé Waters North America has joined forces with As You Sow, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and others to form the advocacy group, Recycling Reinvented. The group is pushing for the adoption of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws in states around the country.
Such laws would set targets for recycling, but producers of consumer goods would be responsible for working together to devise and manage the recycling systems. (You can read my previous post for a more detailed discussion of how EPR works.)
In other words, recycling would become a responsibility that all consumer goods producers would share.
The key challenge for the Recycling Reinvented project is to get companies to see that participating in EPR is in their common interest, so they can cooperate on developing high standards at the most efficient cost.
Nestlé Waters North America gets that, which is why it is engaging with other “brand owners” to get on board with EPR. The company’s Director of Sustainability, Michael Washburn told me:
“The reason Nestlé Waters is interested in this program in the first place is we want not just increased quantity of recycling but we want improved quality of material. So you want quality standards of service for the people, the consumer, but you also want improved quality across the system so the quality of the material that’s coming out of the system is ultimately useful.”
Getting Companies On Board For The Common Good
But what about companies that either don’t recycle at all or do so inadequately? Why should they share the cost of recycling with companies like Nestlé Waters N.A. that are hankering after lots of high quality recycled material?
That’s where the answer gets interesting, because one doesn’t often hear from corporate America a plea for private enterprise to take society’s interest as a whole to heart. Washburn says laws need to be imposed to compel participation because companies that don’t recycle continue to impose the cost of waste onto society – and that’s not sustainable for anyone in the long run.
Corporations don’t like being told they have to do anything. But volunteer standards and waiting for Green Enlightenment won’t do the trick. It’s the Tragedy of the Commons.
But neither, Washburn says, is government in the position to do the job right. He counters the arguments from some companies that maybe we should ask more of municipal governments by pointing to fiscal realities: municipal governments simply cannot extract more dollars from their taxpayers to make the kind of improvements necessary.
EPR Gaining Advocates
And not all companies are pushing back.
Washburn cites some companies in the paper industry as an example: “There are paper mills being closed every day in the U.S. for a variety of reasons and one of them is shortage of fiber at an affordable cost. So we have some of them saying to us, if you can find us a low cost way to increase the collection of certain kinds of paper fiber, we'd be very interested in that.”
Consumers also have an interest.
Although EPR would entail a small increase in the price of consumer products – from fractions of a cent to a few cents – consumers are now paying multiple times to manage waste. Washburn explains:
“Why should consumers pay for packaging material in the first place and then secondly have to pay for it to be hauled away and then pay for its disposal? And when communities have to close landfills, they have to pay the cost a fourth time. How many times should consumers have to pay for those materials and, by the way, take them out of productive use for industries that need them? It makes no sense.”
Shifting From Throw-Away Toward Resource Consciousness
Washburn wants us to shift from the concept of “throw-away” to a wider consciousness of resources. He says we need to excise phrases like “end of life” and “waste” from our vocabulary. By way of example, he asked me to imagine a water bottle whose contents had been fully consumed.
“Now it’s an empty bottle in a consumer’s hand. People say, ‘now I’m going to throw it away.’ What if alternatively we said, OK, I now have in my hand a natural resource. How do I redeploy it for productive use?
The answer to that is you put it in a recycling bin. If we get to the point where there’s easy access to these assets, public spaces for recycling, curbside for everyone where that makes sense -- certainly for urban areas -- more access, robust education, high participation, then we change the social narrative around this so people actually understand the importance of recycling.
It’s not some quaint environmental thing; it happens to be how a mature industrial society needs to behave if it wants to remain an industrial society.
As Washburn is fully aware, this is not an agenda that is going to appeal equally to every sector, every company or every brand.
But, he wants us to ponder the question: for us as a civil society, do the benefits outweigh the cost?
In a world of constrained resources, where there’s an increasing global competition for a limited supply of materials, Washburn says we simply cannot continue to afford to have the kind of wasteful system that we do in this country.
We’re going to need those materials down the road and we’d better start thinking about that now.
Previously: Nestlé Waters North America Woos the Food Industry: Time For The Recycle Economy?