New Orleans Over the last year, New Orleans hasn’t offered recycling since Hurricane Ida knocked the city out of commission. After recycling for the last three decades, it feels bad to be putting old newspapers in with the garbage. Throwing plastic in seems almost disloyal to ACORN members in India for whom that is a livelihood. The same could be said for cans of various varieties. Forty years ago, even before curbside pickup, we recycled within the informal economy, because we had wastepickers in our neighborhood along the Mississippi River, even if that wasn’t what anyone called them. A couple of guys, some with bicycles and some with shopping carts, were regulars on the blocks in the predawn. I would often see one or other of them when I was jogging on the same streets. It was their livelihood. All of this became habitual. The family still puts aside glass, and our son drives it out to a place that collects and recycles it all. Electronics go in one of our old trash cans until overflowing, and we draw straws for who on our team will drive on a Saturday to the city’s transfer station which will take them at certain times of the month.
Whether organized by the city or our own haphazard efforts now, they all pale compared to what I see my friends do in California when I visit or when I stay with my colleagues in the UK or Europe. Even at our best we were pikers. Nonetheless, I often ask myself, “Does it really matter?”
I was talking to a biochemist on Wade’s World recently, who was based in California. She was hawking dehydration. Her company had created an auto-washing product where you just use a tablet and add water. The larger point that had hooked me into the conversation with her were statistics on the impact on the supply chain of shipping through air, water, and rails, what in composition was essentially water, which was readily available through a pipe by turning on the tap at your own home. Her point there was beyond debate. Were we just paying for the convenience of not having to use our own water. Such recognition has become ubiquitous, like the pods many use in dishwasher, but still, we use a lot of liquid detergent, which talking to her suddenly didn’t make sense. The old camping, canoeing, backpacking, and, let’s be honest, military, use of dehydrated food, which we all ate after Katrina in New Orleans on a different kind of battlefield, was not something I could turn my nose up as easily. I wondered if my regular diet of frozen dinners, might be an environmental plus, and not just my impatience and indifference to cooking?
In short, I asked her the question: “Does our home recycling make a difference in dealing with climate change?” There was no stutter or hesitation as she replied definitively, “No, to make a difference you have to do so at the source.” I knew she was 100% correct.
We’re not going to stop recycling. It’s our family culture. We do our part. At the same time, I can’t help feeling that we’ve been sold some neoliberalist pap that transfers the responsibility for stopping climate change to all of us as consumers, rather than the big businesses, manufacturers, agribusinesses, utilities, politicians, airlines, etc, etc, etc, who have made the mess and don’t want to spend the money or energy to fix their systems to protect the planet and the rest of us. Our mantra has to be to clean up the mess from the beginning at the source, not down the line when it gets to us. We’ll do our little-bitty best, but at the top of the chain, all of them need to go big time and get the job done or we’re just fiddling while the world burns.