I was at a party two weekends ago and the hosts don’t recycle. When asked why, they responded that their trash service charges extra for recycling. The guest asking about it (not me this time) responded that he would gladly recycle as long as it didn’t cost him money.
As much as I wanted to, I didn’t react or comment. But it got me thinking. How much does recycling cost? And is it worth it?
I didn’t spend a lot of time researching the costs associated with recycling. Mainly for two reasons. One is that I don’t have that kind of time. The other is that a few others have already done this work and written very good books on it. The main ones that come to mind are “The Story of Stuff” and “Cradle to Cradle”. Both quick reads, one will learn more than they ever imagined about industry and trash. One of the most important lessons that screams it’s obviousness is that there is no “away”. Our stuff doesn’t go away. It goes somewhere. But what then? If it’s recycled, it becomes something else. Most products are actually downcycled. That is, their materials aren’t good enough the second time around to re-become the same thing they were, so they have to become something less than they were in their first life. In so doing, they can only be “recycled” a few times before any and all usefulness has been used up and they go to the other place – a landfill. Another aspect that glares the obvious is the permanence of landfills. Items placed in a landfill stay there. Seemingly forever. Landfill excavations have found 50 year old newspapers that were completely legible and 10 year old banana peels. The main problem is that federal and state laws decry that landfills must be air and water-tight. And without air & water, nothing degrades. Ever. So, once something goes to a landfill, it stays there. I’ll use another posting to rant about landfills…
Back to the cost of recycling…
Consider the capitalist system. In it, no company ever absorbs a cost that it doesn’t have to. Instead, the company passes that cost down to the consumer. So, if making a product recyclable costs more or if that company is forced to accept returns of the product to recycle, they will roll those costs into the product. And then if your waste management company has a recycling program, the costs of it are included in all of their services. So, my friend at that party is already paying for recycling. The “downside” is that if they decide to go with their trash service company’s recycling option, they would be paying for recycling twice.
But, consider the alternatives. The long-term cost of a landfill far outweighs the minimal cost of recycling. However, many a leader or organization has tried to get people to do things for the common good. And failed.
The successful leaders have motivated their people through financial means. And we have the means and ability to do that now. We’re just not quite motivated yet. I wonder how much motivation we’d have if the “away” that we believe houses our trash was in the center of our communities. Or if our neighbors tried to burn their trash in our attached backyards. If that were the norm, would we then be motivated to find a better way?
I’d prefer we decided to do right before we reached those painful levels. But, will we?