Recycling is no solution to anything
Now boys and girls we are going to have a sermon. I looked it up, and a sermon doesn’t have to be religious, it can be moral too. And sermons often like to take off from a text. So here is the text for today’s sermon. It is a story in the Berkeleyside newspaper which describes a strange movement taking place in Berkeley California, arguably the most progressive, forward looking city in the United States. I’m not talking about the Berkeley city council offering to take the Guantanamo prisoners who are known to be innocent but are being kept in Cuba because our government says no one wants them (Hooray Berkeley!). No, this is about recycling in Berkeley schools. This is a more morally complex issue than freeing prisoners. What do I mean?
On the surface, it seems simple. Recycling is an unalloyed good, isn’t it? Everyone agrees that recycling saves the planet, don’t they? Well it wouldn’t be Berkeley if there weren’t some contrary opinions, would it?
The newspaper simply reports that the recycling program at the schools is in trouble because trained older students graduate and are replaced by untrained kindergarteners. So the parents are getting involved with the help of some environmental organizations. What could be wrong with this picture?
If you think about it from a certain point of view, you might eventually realize that there is something missing. Sure, everyone believes that recycling is good but where is the beef? How do you know? What is the basic theory of recycling anyway? Where are the studies that should be supporting a campaign like this? After all, we don’t teach math without relying on about a million books and articles analysing how to teach math. Even the design of a lunchroom has competing theories of how to organize lunch. A belief isn’t a theory – it sounds like a religion. Isn’t there a peer reviewed study somewhere analysing what recycling is based on and the way it fits into the complex nature of resource conservation?
Amazingly, there isn’t any such thing. When you do recycling, you are engaging in a behavior that simply must be described as a religion. It has priests, rabbis, acolytes and missionaries aplenty. It even has bibles and schools of theology. And churches with donation plates and 501(c)(3) tax exemption. But no science. How is this possible? A city religion in BERKELEY?
One place to begin is with is this assumption that recycling is connected to resource conservation. Where does that come from? For example, we know that there is a huge problem in our wasteful society with planned obsolescence. We know that products are purposely designed to fall apart after a very short useful life. We know that manufacturers expect to sell more goods if their goods don’t last very long. The degraded goods are called garbage and they have to go somewhere if they aren’t going to simply pile up. That’s why we have garbage collection and garbage dumping. All of this consumption of resources to make goods that fall apart and move right into a dump – that’s got to use up resources aplenty, doesn’t it. How would recycling affect all of that? Does it slow the bad design? Does it force design for products that last forever? Does it change design or manufacturing methods in any way. Well, actually, no. It has no effect at all on the terribly wasteful designs that lead to raping our planet worldwide for more resources. All it does is handle the garbage AFTER the garbage is created. In fact, it makes garbage more attractive because the manufacturers can tell their customers, “don’t worry, your garbage isn’t going into a dump anymore, it’s going to be recycled!” Hurray, no more anxiety. “Please, give me even more garbage so that I can recycle even more because I really, really, believe in recycling with all my heart.”
Do you think that changing systemic designs for crummy products into good designs for long lasting products might be better than improving garbage management? I do.
Let me not put on the dog here. I shouldn’t act purposely naïve. There is one claim made for recycling, and so far as I know it’s the only one. So let’s look at the claim that recycling saves raw materials because it reclaims them for reuse. How does it do that?
The best example I know of is one of the most commonly recycled articles, namely glass bottles. We all take them home from the grocery and elsewhere and then we get to throw the empties into a dumpster and make broken glass. What fun! But let’s pretend for a moment that we are actually serious people – that we are actually concerned with the manufacturing process for making a glass bottle and we want to analyse it in some detail.
Where does glass come from? The raw material is about 98% silica, silicon dioxide, the main component of most sand. Really cheap stuff. The largest component of the earth’s crust. We need to clean it and purify it a bit but mostly we need to heat it until it melts in hot furnaces burning lots of fossil fuels. Then we have already made molds that won’t melt at those temperatures and we blow a blob of red hot molten glass into a mold and when it cools it keeps that shape, which can even have a brand impressed right into the glass. Of course the molten silica doesn’t do any of this by itself. It happens in factories with lots of automated equipment, all of which had to be designed and built and brought to the factory and installed. Every day, the equipment needs to be maintained, repaired, fed with materials and fuel, and upgraded every so often. The designers of the equipment went to good schools, they raise their families, send the kids to school, buy them books and clothes, drive in cars and go on vacations. The same applies more or less to the workers in the factories and to the construction crew that built the factories and the roads and infrastructure for getting to and from the factory. There is an office crew with accountants and managers who also live complex lives. The bottles are often packed into one-trip cardboard cartons so everyone involved in making those cartons is also contributing to the bottle making. The finished bottles are usually carried in trucks so that equipment is in the mix as well as the truck drivers and the banks making loans on the trucks.
Whew! Have we left out anything. Yes, probably but that gives us the flavor. A bottle doesn’t make itself. An entire industry makes it and an industry implies lots and lots of expenditures of every kind. All to make bottles. And the same holds true for any other product you can name.
If we invest this much into making a glass bottle, wouldn’t it make sense to wring as much usefulness out of each bottle? Does it make any sense to use it once and smash it immediately? And if we put it into a dump, where does the waste of making that bottle take place? Is it in just the small loss of silica or have we already wasted the lion’s share of our expenditure when we invested so much effort into creating that single-use bottle?
So the bottle is filled with wine or mayonnaise or rice and sold to be used once. It’s probably left kind of dirty, with the wine or mayonnaise still lining it, then it makes its way down to the recycling center where the contaminated glass is smashed. There is some ceramic and steel and polyester plastic and gravel and aluminum mixed in with it because, well, it’s in a dumpster fer chrissakes so who really cares. Not my problem anymore. Recycled or not, it’s garbage.
So at very best, what do we have at the end of this process. We have the most common material of the earth’s crust, but now contaminated, and ready to go through the entire trucking and blowing process all over again. All of that expenditure of effort and labor and equipment maintenance and the rest all comes into play again. What have we gained by our recycling. We saved the least important part of the bottle, the materials, to use again. What did we lose when we discarded the broken glass. We lost the history, the shape, the ability to contain, in a word – the FUNCTION! Did we save 5% of the value and investment in the bottle? Unlikely. Maybe 2% to be generous.
Did you catch the key word above? It’s the word “function”. This is what costs 98% of almost every commodity. This is what the designers design for. This is what the goods are sold for. This is what takes all the effort to create. Function is the point of the design, the engineering, the resource extraction and refining, the assembly, the shipping around the planet and the selling. Almost without exception, the materials are the least important part of any product. But what does recycling capture? The materials! Nothing more. Broken glass, broken bits of plastic, broken bits of steel, broken bits of copper. All bereft of their functions. All meaningless in the scheme of things.
But hold on a minute, isn’t reclaiming the materials better than filling up a dump? Maybe. Maybe not. What recycling captures is so insignificant that it really makes little difference. Does the dump use up valuable land? Okay that’s worth considering. Let’s agree to this much. Recycling is better than dumping. Is it better than any other form of reuse. Not at all. Recycling stands out as the worst possible form of reuse that you can find. Every other form of reuse that makes any use at all of function is superior. Does that seem like a reason for getting behind recycling?
Another obsession of Berkeley is food. Its restaurants and fine palates are famous. Is the food in Berkeley really better? Well what should we compare it to. Let’s compare it to eating rotten fish out of an old fishnet down on the wharf. By that comparison, Berkeley food is truly exquisite. But what kind of comparison is that? What does it tell you to compare food to the worst possible example you can find? Yet that’s what the religion of recycling tries to do. Compare anything to completely wasteful destruction of the world’s resources and anything else is better. But every other form of reuse is superior to recycling.
But wait you say, recycling must be conserving resources because it makes money. People collect glass and steel and cardboard and they make money doing it. How can this be if recycling is so useless?
It’s not hard to see what is going on. We are talking about the vast flow of the world’s resources. The overall market for any common material even just in the United States is gigantic. It’s worth trillions of dollars a year for glass, plastic steel, copper, wood etc. Recycling captures a tiny fraction of that – maybe less than a millionth of one percent at any one recycling center. Just for comparison, that fraction of a trillion dollars is still ten thousand dollars. A really big recycling center, such as one run by a big garbage company, might bring its rate up to a thousandth of one percent which comes to a million dollars. So the flow is so vast that tiny fractions recovered add up to serious money. But is this any way to run any economic theory? Where else do we gloat and exult over a program that affects such an insignificant portion of our economic behavior? When you leave 99.999% of a problem unsolved, you don’t take any satisfaction in your accomplishment.
What would be a better, more intelligent, more rational way to conserve the resources inherent in a glass bottle? The answer is to be found in the theory of Zero Waste. Unlike recycling, Zero Waste Theory is a fully worked out scientific study of resource usage pathways and an evaluation of alternate methods. According to Zero Waste Theory, the critical question is always the function. What was a product intended to do. How can we prolong that function endlessly, perpetually, or as close to that as possible? At least how can we design with that as our goal?
The answer is not always some simple tweak of the product itself. Many environmentalists, though well intentioned, badly miss this point. A product does not exist in a vacuum. It fits into a society with dozens of assumptions by users of where it comes from, how it is activated, what should it cost, what models are there, what does it do, what else can it be used for, who is allowed to use it and what happens to it if it breaks or is no longer wanted. All of these parameters are available to change and must be dealt with when redesigning a product for perpetual use or else the design will fail.
In the case of a glass container, the function is obvious. It contains! Let’s design to reuse that function, not the material. In other words, let’s refill the container with its original contents. Did it contain wine or ketchup or salt or seeds. Put them back in and keep right on reusing that container. Why should it be assumed that you will get a new amount of the contents in a new container? You already have a container. This wasteful assumption is less than a hundred years old.
Is it possible now to simply refill all your containers? No, of course not, because there is a recent and wasteful assumption that new products come in new containers and the whole distribution system is built around that. How would it be to make a new and different assumption and build it in to a new distribution system?
It’s not hard to figure out. We need to build a distribution system built around bulk delivery into personal containers. After all, we have done this over and over. We have beers on tap for refilling glasses in a bar. We have self-service pumps in every gas station. (What if you had to buy your gas in multiple new five gallon cans the same way you have to do for washing machine detergent?) There are plenty of questions to answer, but Zero Waste Theory puts the new designs in an accessible context and points the way to myriad applications. The same analysis works for hundreds of thousands of common products, all of which are subject to scientific analysis leading to new products leading to new businesses.
Do we already have these systems in place? What about deposit bottles? What about bulk containers in the organic supermarkets? Do these, or other systems already allow for Zero Waste designs. No, they don’t. Only if you take a cognitive leap, ignoring the details, not doing the hard analysis, not really keeping your eye on the end result, will all kinds of wasteful, wishy washy innovations seem to work but do they refill containers in an effective way? Sorry, but no, they don’t. The seemingly conserving methods available today are all subtly designed to foster some kind of waste, compared to a really well designed system and waste makes money for someone.
What does this have to do with Berkeley? Remember Berkeley? Teachers and parents were expending endless effort to teach the children how to recycle. Is this a good use of their time? We have seen that it is not. It would be much better to figure out how to solve, let’s say, 90% of problems in a rational, effective way than to solve 0.000001% in a hopelessly inadequate way. Recycling is nothing for Berkeley to be proud of.
But no one can put the brakes on a religion. Not even in Berkeley.