Recycling is a Hot Mess


            Marble Falls      In the mountains, we pack it in and pack it out.  It makes you think about recycling.  What do we drop off at the first opportunity along the road home, and what do we dutifully drive to New Orleans for our weekly pickup?  In the virtue-seeking experience of modern life and increasing sensitivity about the climate, we have been participants in the recycling system for decades.

Here’s the problem.  I’m becoming cynical about the fact that the recycling system is not a system at all, but something close to a corporate scam abetted by governmental chaos.  Partly this has come to me from two decades of experience assisting in organizing recyclers among the precarious waste pickers in Mumbai and other Indian cities.  It’s impossible to watch our members handpick what they can sell to the processors on the next rung up and what remains trash.  The process actually tracks, looking for pearls among the swine.

The US operation is as bad.  Greenpeace surveyed 375 American recycling centers and came back with a report that underlines how much plastic is not being recycled, despite all of our best intentions.   Looking at the highlights, they didn’t find anyone who handled coffee pods or plastic coverings.  They only found 2% that handled plastic lids and plates, 1% that handled plastic bags (full disclosure, we take them all to Walmart and hope for the best), and 9% that even messed with plastic cups.

Let’s be honest.  Who can even read the numbers hidden and largely invisibly stamped on various products?  If you can read them, how miniscule is the number of people who know what the various numbers mean, and let’s all salute the handful of people so committed to zero waste that they run drive all over town, if it’s available, looking for the impossible place that might handle specialized sorting and recovery.  Please ignore the carbon offset for the sake of the main argument here.

A columnist in the Washington Post caught my attention.  He noted that there are 20,000 different local jurisdictional procedures for recycling, and no federal system, since the labeling all defaults to corporate practice, much of which, this is me talking not him, is fictional.  A 2019 survey of the public found a quarter saying that recycling was more complicated than filling out their taxes, which really means that they aren’t bothering.

He makes the obvious points.  The government needs to bring order to this chaos, and it can’t be up to individuals, despite all of our best intentions.  Manufacturers of plastic goods have to produce items that can be recycled easily and efficiently at the final user and local destination.  They can’t be allowed to save money on their end by forcing towns and cities across the countries to fill their landfills with corporate plastic and other crap.

Believe me, local recyclers aren’t hand sorting trash like our members are doing in India in an almost feudal system, but plastic producers are pushing the problem down to them and fouling the entire batch so that too much of it ends in the heap on the outskirts of town.  The processors aren’t even taking most of the stuff we are sending.  I’ll still separate everything before I throw it in the truck, but I can’t help feeling that government and industry are just playing me for a fool, even while everyone sitting in their sweat these days are claiming they will do something about climate change.