Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Future of Recycling: A Comprehensive Nationwide Recycling Program

After getting all the way to page 6 of Simple Living’s A-Z guide titled, “How to Recycle Anything,” I had an epiphany; for the average person, recycling nearly all if not all of the waste they produce is a difficult, complicated matter. Recycling should be 100x easier than throwing something away. Yet for many reasons it is 100x harder.

That’s why no one recycles everything they use, even the most committed environmentalists throw away more than they should, its just too hard not to. But I think that if we’re going to really get serious about climate change and sustainability, we’ll need to fix recycling first. We won’t be a sustainable nation until it’s easier to recycle a cell phone and old clothes than it is to throw them into a landfill.

Unfortunately, the state of recycling in America is chaotic, a hodgepodge of state, federal and local laws and regulations, governed and managed by a slew of disparate agencies and nonprofit and for-profit organizations. Why is it that you can recycle plastic bottles, but not bottle caps, and batteries, but not beach balls? There are still some major gaps in recyclability.

Most bottled drinks we consume come in a plastic or glass bottle. Any recycling program in the country can handle a glass or plastic bottle (sans plastic cap). But suppose you’re an avid Capri Sun fan? Capri Sun pouches, along with several other sugar water “juice drinks,” are made with a plastic polymer and aluminum that can’t be recycled by conventional facilities.

Capitalism works to fill in such gaps, and a company called Terracycle will be happy to turn your former juice drinks or potato chip bags into a backpack, laptop case, or any other one of their 178 products. In the process, they’ll donate 1-2 cents for every drink pouch or chip bag you send in to a school or charity of your choice. And while that’s a great deal both for you and the environment, it hasn’t really been translating into a wildly successful reduction in the amount of Capri Sun pouches that end up in landfills.

Chances are you’ve never heard of Terracycle, let alone sent anything to them. A few cents donated to a school or charity just isn’t enough of a motivating factor to make most people take the time and effort to save and mail certain types of trash rather than simply throwing it in a waste bin. This is why it doesn’t seem likely that for-profit upcycling companies will fill in all the gaps in recyclability. At least, they haven’t yet, and recycling has been around for a very long time.

Even if a whole industry of upcycling companies sprung up, I don’t believe it would make recycling any easier. The free market works best in a disorganized, non-monopolized way, yet the more decentralized our recycling process is, the more room for confusion. It’s already hard enough to remember which piece of trash is recyclable and which isn’t, so it doesn’t seem like adding the question of “Which company do I send this to?” to the equation would simplify anything.

Why haven’t local and state governments filled in the gaps? Well some have, but many cannot afford to. It’s simply a matter of priorities, especially in our current economic situation. When it comes to improving our local recycling system or improving schools, I’m sure that most people including myself would want funds to be allocated to the schools over recycling programs. Many states are currently running large deficits, and California, a leader in providing innovative, efficient, and cutting-edge recycling programs could soon be in bankruptcy. The funding to make recycling easier on a state level just isn’t there. Even if the economy was better and funding was available, it isn’t likely that Missouri would ever invest as much in recycling as California. There would still be major gaps in recyclability on the local and state levels.

So if the solution to simple recycling doesn’t lie in the free market, local government, or state government, then what’s left? Oh come on, you’re a good liberal… you know where I’m going with this!

We need a national recycling program, and if the conservative filibusterers will not grant us that, then at the very least we need a national recycling policy. Imagine if there was an easy to understand code consisting of symbols on every product, from your cell phone to your Gatorade, which told you how to recycle it? Imagine if states received extra funding from the federal government to ensure that the recycling facilities in Missouri are up to par with California’s? How about rewarding states with good recycling laws with more funding? Or creating an easy to use website that allows you to search for nearly any product sold in the US for information about its recyclability? What about fining companies that don’t make their products recyclable, and encouraging industries to set standards as far as material use in products? The EPA has set the goal to achieve 35.5 miles per gallon for cars and trucks by 2016, so why not say by 2016 that we’ll reduce our landfill creation by 10% or that by 2016, new pairs of denim jeans must contain at least 5% recycled material?

These are all relatively simple things that we can do as a nation, but they might have to come from the top down. Even a small change such as increasing the funding to states that lack modern recycling facilities could have a huge impact on our nation’s carbon footprint. Such changes would signal to the world that we’re serious about the environmental challenges facing all of us, and they would not be nearly as painful for conservatives as the comparatively giant climate change bill currently being considered. Some of the changes would not even have to come from Congress, as the EPA should be able to move toward a national recycling policy on its own. As far as more funds to states, it’s pretty hard to argue against recycling. A recycling bill may be able to beat any sustained attempt (pardon the pun) at a filibuster from the right. Recycling has been ignored lately as we’ve looked to solving “bigger” (I would argue that waste is a big problem) problems, but we should get the little problems right before we tackle larger, more difficult problems like alternative energy and the smart grid.


Henry Vasquez said...

This post is really well-thought out. Welcome to Lefty's, Chris!

Aly said...

Great ideas, Chris! You definitely explained the problems of recycling well and offered some great solutions. Awesome job, and welcome to Lefty's :)