Wednesday, March 3, 2010

It's cool to be green. Too cool

(newsarticle excerpt)
“We keep all the plastic bags over here under the sink.” She opened the cabinet and an inexorable wave of Type 2 high-density polyethylene came cascading onto the floor.

“My god, what are you doing with all of these?”

“It’s okay, I’ll recycle them. Eventually.”

A cupboard full of old grocery bags is nothing unusual, whether your in SAIC’s dorms, Chicago’s neighborhoods, or anywhere else in the country. What is unusual, however, is the way we have come to regard the environment, and the ways we think we are protecting it.

Enter, the Green Movement. By now, green has become brand. It has been repackaged and sold back to us so many times we hardly even notice it. Earth-friendly products are bought without so much as a second thought, and recycling is not as environmentally avent-garde as it once was.

There was once a time when an individual with his or her own private recycle bin was dubbed “hippie” or “tree-hugger.” Now, those friendly blue bins have become a standard public service, and even now, SAIC is in the throes of RecycleMania!

The problem is that “being green” has become well, easy. “I choose the green products, and recycle my plastic, therefore I’m doing my part.”

This is where delusion comes in.

In this day and age, ‘eco-friendly’ is a label that associates business with compassion. Just about every establishment recycles in one way or another – some restaurants, like Sultan’s Market in the Wicker Park area, even go as far as to compost any food waste that is generated.

Cause to worry exists in the fact that “recycle” (in our cultural context) has become synonymous with, say, Google — it’s become so widely accepted, consumed, and digested — we forgot why it all started in the first place. Like a logo, the term recycle has almost morphed into a newspeak phrase, lodged into our schema with associations of earth-friendliness, love, trees – maybe even a smiley face here and there.

To get at the essence of recycling, we must remember why it started. Just as Google sought “to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful,” recycling began as a way to solve one of the world’s many problems:

Waste. Lots of it. American style.

According to recent figures by the EPA, we are still dumping about 4.6 pounds per person, per day. Half of that ends up in landfills or incinerators. The other half (recyclable materials) is gallantly reused so we can continue to get our fix of those disposable plastic products we love.

This brings two problems to mind. Could recycling potentially prolong American dependency on disposable, petroleum based goods? We are recycling those plastic forks simply so we can give them a second life. And all those plastic bags that accumulate under our sinks are stamped with cute little “recycle me!” logos – yeah, recycle me so I can become another plastic bag, destined for the landfill.

To concede, at least we aren’t relying on new material to create more of those plastic baggies. But the larger problem is the issue of dependency on disposables. We’ve created an environmental stalemate.

The second issue is that recycling is often used as an excuse. “It’s okay that the cashier at Jewel double-bagged $150 dollars worth of groceries. I will just recycle all 20 of those bags.” Bottom line: we shouldn’t need them in the first place.

What we need is a way to phase out of dispose-mode. We need a method that kills the “Use now, recycle later” mindset, and reduces the need for new materials. Luckily, some clever folks are one step ahead.

Welcome, friends to the world of Zero-Waste (or, Pre-cycling, if you want to get clever.) In this world there, are no plastic grocery bags, forks, spoons, cups, plates, containers, hats, cozies, napkins, towels, or anything else. In this world, each person has a mug, some silver wear, and a cloth grocery bag. When they go to Cosi for lunch, they give the barista their travel mug for coffee, use their own silverware, and (if you’re really fancy) a cloth napkin.

Pre-cycling would almost eliminate the need to recycle at all. By selecting products with very little packaging, we would reduce waste production and save money. Imagine not buying any more paper towels, paper napkins, paper plates, or plastic cutlery. Wiping up a spill with a cloth towel? Now that’s eco-friendly.

These propositions may sound a bit outlandish, but the times are changing. Currently, Zero-Waste is already in implementation in many areas such as Yellowstone National Park and the town of Nantucket in Massachusetts. According to the Leslie Kaufman of The New York Times, “An antigarbage strategy known as “zero waste” is moving from the fringes to the mainstream, taking hold in school cafeterias, national parks, restaurants, stadiums and corporations.” And restaurants that still employ disposable utensils have switched over to plant-based plastics that dissolve in a matter of minutes when heated.

Bottom line, recycling is essentially a market. Recyclable materials are stored by contractors and sold to buyers – buyers that now dwindle due to the world’s recent economic downturn. Storehouses are overflowing with waste waiting to be re-used. Recycling is a business, and right now, business is bad. Just take a look at the American economy.

China has been buying the U.S.’ recyclable waste for decades, but this has greatly diminished due to its recent economic downturn.  In an article for the Guardian about US recycling, Dan Glaister states, “The US exported 11m tonnes of scrap paper to China last year with a value of $11.5bn… The Chinese typically use the paper from the US to make packaging material for the exports they send, typically, back to the US.”

On top of that, one must take into account the oil that is expended every time America ships it re-usable refuse across the Pacific Ocean. Cliff Kuang is a writer for Wired and Popular Science, in his article “The Total Package,” he states, “Every year, the shipping industry—including trucking, traveling on container ships, and air freight—emits six percent of the world’s greenhouse gases, including 1.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide, twice as much as commercial aviation.”

SAIC recycles through Allied Waste Services, a company that collects, sorts, and compacts recyclables locally in 1 of 8 Chicago recycling centers. Kevin Kruis, the Recycling & Special Events Manager of Allied Waste Chicago, says that most commercial and residential recyclables are taken to an Allied sorting center on 43rd and Racine. Once sorted, the bales of ‘commodity’ are shipped nationwide and overseas for reuse.

This, combined with the petroleum we continue to circulate into our daily lives through the use of disposable plastic conveniences amounts to an awful lot for the planet to handle – all in the name of reuse.

So yes. Recycle all those baggies hiding beneath your sink. Recycle anything that can be recycled for that matter. The hook: next time you’re out – grocery shopping, eating out, or doing anything else that involves disposable waste – pass. Turn it down, or at least reduce it.

To recycle should be a last resort, not an excuse for excess consumption. The planet (and your wallet) will thank you.

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