Recycle or Not To Recycle

June 15th, 2016 No Comments »


When I worked for the San Francisco Department of Social Services my boss suggested I go to a seminar on recycling. At the seminar, I mentioned to a man I was having coffee with that this kind of event would not be necessary if we did not have companies foisting on us all the stuff that needed to be recycled. Without comment, he subsequently mounted the stage and began to tall us the importance of recycling with hints on how to accomplish it. It turned out he was a spokesperson for manufacturers of plastic and other packaging material.

I still recycle. However, now I am wise enough to know that recycling is definitely not the whole answer. Recycling puts the burden on the purchaser to figure out how to dispose of the waste. It thus leaves the manufacturers of packaging free to come up with even more over packaging. For instance, at Senior Lunch Centers, Seniors were given cartons of milk. The cartons were compostable. Now the same Seniors are given miniature plastic bottles of milk. These require recycling and that adds to the cost of the milk, both to our pocketbooks and the environment.

Recycling does have aspects of imperialism. For instance, used electronic and automotive parts are shipped from the US to factories overseas that wreck the environment and expose low wage workers to dangerous, even lethal materials. Volatile mercury is used to extract gold from incalculable tons of circuit boards in China. High concentrations of lead contaminate acres of ground around battery recycling factories in Mexico.

How could we produce less stuff that needs to be recycled? A few ideas. Less product packaging. Produce longer lasting durable products so they will not have to be replaced as often. Less emphasis on our having to get the latest product with the latest gimmicks. More lending of things through libraries, like tools to avoid buying individual items for use only a few times. Using material that could be composted at home instead of needing recycling.

For products like electronics or car batteries, the issue is more complex since some of these products exist to solve other environmental problems. Electric cars for one. But technological advances also use increasingly toxic materials. Some obvious solutions: better mass transit that would obviate the need for cars; restoring downtown shopping areas vs. car dependent malls; getting rid of gigantic internet server farms devoted to porn, violent on-line videogames, etc. all could reduce electronic waste.

But how might we reduce electronic waste from useful and beneficial electronic hardware? Paradoxically, producing only higher-power circuit boards, speedy with lots of memory, means we would not have to upgrade as much software advances. Eliminating patents (gasp!) so many more devices could work with others could mean we could buy and dispose of fewer devices. Developing less toxic materials for electronics is always a goal, though we are sometimes disappointed when these materials show up as toxic years later. What we would give up is probably miniaturization.

Ultimately, we would have to make many choices, balancing convenience with the greater good of society. But in order to have these choices take effect, we have to gain much more power in society.

— Denise D’Anne; Michael Lyon

(Michael Lyon and Denise D’Anne are both on the Board of Gray Panthers and other organizations together. Both are deeply concerned about the trajectory of our environment.)

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