Monthly Archives: April 2013

The problem with recycling

Recycling is not the answer. By itself, recycling does little to make the world a cleaner place. It must be preceded by the much more important acts of Reducing and Reusing. Together, they form the Three R’s.

So you can call it Part III of an answer, but you cannot say that recycling is the way to save the Earth.

The tripartite answer needs a new graphic symbol, because repurposing the universal recycling symbol (three arrows in a triangle) is confusing. Are all three equal? No. The Reduce arrow should be large, the Reuse arrow should be medium, and the Recycle arrow should be small, to represent priorities. One attempt was the pyramid of “waste hierarchy,” but I’m not buying the graphic symbol or the name.

“Waste hierarchy” offers a good idea in bad packaging.

Waste hierarchy? That is a clunker.

Three R’s is mediocre as a name, so maybe we can rechristen them “The Rees.” That name could use a theme song, performed by the Ree-rees, and they could use the new graphic in the same way that Prince once tried to change his name into a symbol.

I’m seeing two circles nested inside a large circle of Reducing. Or a pair of scissors with blades Reduce and Reuse and handles of Recycle? Help me, the graphically challenged.

I’m not saying to stop recycling or to stop fighting for recycling bins next to every trashcan. But I am saying to drink water from a tap instead of from a plastic bottle; use real plates instead of paper ones; and don’t print this article, because that piece of paper generates unnecessary waste, and the cold fact is that very, very little waste gets recycled.

Did you see actor Jeremy Irons sitting on mountains of trash? His documentary Trashed offers revolting images of garbage in places far away from the U.S. “Does anyone know what happens to it all?” he asks.

No. We don’t. So let’s not pretend that we can recycle our way out of this mess.

Where is sustainable?

The Brundtland Commission of 1987 created the popular definition for sustainability: it means using natural resources now in a way that will not compromise the quality of life of future generations. In essence, today’s actions have future consequences. The actual definition is about development, “which meets the needs of current generations without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

Sustainability has been applied to various systems.

Sustainability has been applied to various systems.

With this definition in mind, you have to wonder: is anything sustainable? Seven billion people, just by existing and surviving, compromise the planet’s future. With 7 billion people eating, shopping and generally causing pollution, it would seem that the only sustainable activity would be genocide.

The problem with coupling the word “sustainability” with “development” is that it implies continuous growth, much like the classical model of capitalism that assumes the availability of more and more capital. A better term would be “sustainable living,” because life implies death, which is the opposite of development.

Sustainability has been co-opted by the corporate sector and affirmed by the United Nations as a “triple bottom line” of economics, healthy communities, and nature. In today’s world, the former two are gobbling up the latter and digesting it. Can you name one company that does not take more from nature than it gives?

Sustainability does not exist, and perhaps it cannot. Human nature exists, and it compels us to consume, and to take and take and take. We take natural resources. It is not in our nature to give.