Reduce, reuse, recycle. It’s the slogan many of us attempt to live by, especially the third item on the list. We diligently separate our glass, paper, and plastics from our ordinary waste in the hopes that all that bulk will find new life in new products. It’s a noble endeavor, but for plastic in particular, our efforts at recycling are, quite literally, a waste.
Of the 8.3 billion tons of plastic waste the world produces every year, a mere 9% is recycled. 40% is dumped into our oceans, and the rest ends up in landfills.
How is it that such a low percentage is being recycled?
First of all, recycling isn’t quite the cost-effective and low-emissions activity it might first seem. Transporting our waste to China or to local recycling facilities releases its own series of emissions. The act of recycling itself produces emissions. And not every kind of plastic can be easily or cheaply recycled.
In fact, in the last few years, the drop in oil and gas prices has meant that creating new plastic — virgin plastic — is often cheaper than recycling existing plastic. So manufacturers bypass recycled plastic in favor of new. What’s more, the drop in production costs have led to a surge of activity in the plastics industry, including more than 700 projects already underway, from expansions of old plastics plants to the construction of new ones. Plastic is in high demand, but recycled plastic isn’t.
What happens to all that plastic that isn’t getting recycled?
Our go-to for years has been to transport millions of tons of our plastic waste to China and let them deal with it. But in 2017, China notified the world that from now on they would severely restrict the amount and types of waste they would receive. They have to deal with their own waste and no longer want to be the dumping ground for the world’s waste. And who can blame them?
Since China has refused to continue to be our if-we-don’t-see-it-it-doesn’t-exist garbage dump, the US has had to face the magnitude of our consumption. And we’re finding that we are not equipped to handle it.
What too often ends up happening are scenes like the one in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where citizens recycle diligently like they always have, unaware that half of the plastic they’re tossing in the recycling bin is being trucked to the nearby Covanta incinerator and burned.
The Covanta incinerator in Chester, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, receives 200 tons of recycling material every day since China’s ban went into effect in 2018. It belches out a cloud of toxic emissions along with the few other industries in Chester like a paper mill, a wastewater treatment plant, and a medical waste facility. This cloud hangs over the 34,000 residents of Chester, 70% of whom are black.
The people living in Chester already suffer much higher rates of asthma, ovarian cancer, and lung cancer than the rest of Pennsylvania, and experts worry the additional pollutants being released into the atmosphere by the incinerator will only worsen the problem. Burning trash releases an array of pollutants like nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, and particulate matter, all of which cause health issues. The Covanta incinerator burns 3,510 tons of trash per day — the equivalent of 17 blue whales.
This is in just one city, but it’s a situation indicative of a growing problem: We produce too much trash, much of which can’t be recycled, and we don’t have the infrastructure to deal with it because we’ve been relying on China to do our dirty work. The solution, then, is generally to dump it into socioeconomically disadvantaged neighborhoods occupied predominantly by black and brown folks. The facility in Chester receives trash from all over, from as far away as New York City and North Carolina. Only a tiny amount of the waste burned there is actually from Chester, but it’s the residents of Chester who have to suffer the consequences of the literal fallout.
What can we do to stop this?
Covanta defends its incineration practices because, they say, burying waste in a landfill would be just as harmful to the environment due to methane emissions. Covanta and its critics alike say the solution is to overhaul the recycling system in the US.
This is probably a well-intentioned suggestion, but it’s shortsighted, and frankly, a load of bullshit. Recycling isn’t going to fix our waste management problem. It was only one arm of that slogan that was supposed to save us, and it was the third item on the list, the least important:
Reduce, reuse, recycle.
It’s the first two pieces of this directive — REDUCE and REUSE — that could save us, if we were willing to do the work to make them possible. We have to stop consuming so much. PERIOD.
We need to learn to embrace a minimalist lifestyle — to find happiness living with less. Fewer toys, fewer clothes, fewer shoes, fewer home decor items. Using secondhand goods and upcycling whenever possible. Living in smaller homes. Completely foregoing the use of plastic water bottles. Valuing experiences over material possessions. And, as a country, we have to stop producing so much. The U.S. represents only 4% of the world’s population and yet we produce 12% of global waste. Our wastefulness is shameful and unforgivable.
Even personal minimalism won’t save us.
And yet, it’s still not as easy as all of us banding together and adhering to a life of minimalism. We live in a corporate state. Our economy requires consumption to be “healthy.” From our retirement accounts, to our social security, to the value of our homes, to our public services like schools, roads, healthcare, law enforcement, to the very purchasing power of our money — every aspect of our livelihood and well being depends on our constantly increasing consumption. The measure of our economy’s health is literally based on how much we produce and consume: Gross Domestic Product, Consumer Price Index, Purchasing Manager’s Index, and so on. All depend on us buying and making more, more, more.
It’s time to redefine prosperity as a society.
If we reduce and reuse, by all these measurements, we fail. We have to think bigger than simply consuming less, though that is a good place to start. Ultimately, though, measures like GDP and CPI need to be recognized for their role in driving rampant, unnecessary consumerism. And we need to knock it off with the “keeping up with the Joneses,” bigger-better-more mentality that is ingrained in us since birth.
What does a healthy, thriving society look like? Does it look like an exponentially rising stock market punctuated by major recessions every 10 or 15 years? Does it look like a place where only the rich can have adequate healthcare? Where only the rich can afford secondary education? Where the only way to produce the tax revenue necessary to provide public services is to depend on a bull economy? Where the economy can’t thrive unless a cycle of ecologically and personally malignant materials are being endlessly circulated through a toxic cycle of industry, disposal, and incineration?
Or could a healthy, thriving society look like a place where we agree that if we’re going to make it past the next five or six generations, we’re going to have to live with less? Where we measure our society’s level of prosperity by things like health and well-being of our citizens, education accessibility, healthcare availability? Can we ask ourselves what a service-driven economy (rather than material goods) might look like? Are there other, more radical ways to ensure everyone gets what they need without destroying the planet? I don’t have all the answers. I just know that if we are going to survive ourselves, part of that will require us to evaluate the standards by which we as a nation measure our economic health.
That seems impossible when we have an administration that takes pot shots at brilliant young environmentalists like Greta Thunberg and a country filled with willfully ignorant citizens claiming she is a left-wing puppet. Thunberg has been a fiercely dedicated environmentalist of her own making long before any media outlet noticed her. Not only that, but she happens to be right. 97% of scientists agree that climate change is a serious problem we must address.
We have to put pressure on our political leaders to make fixing our growing waste problem a priority. We have to demand a shift in how we measure societal well-being. Yes, recycling is a sham. Yes, we must reduce and reuse. But in order for those individual efforts to have a positive impact, we’re going to have to take a critical look at the impact of how we’ve been defining prosperity as a nation. Because it won’t matter how little we consume if the end result of that decrease in consumption is labeled a “failing economy.”
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