Community Commentary

COMMUNITY COMMENTARY: Rethinking recycling

I have my doubts about recycling. If we’re all cigarette smokers with this great idea to collect the millions of butts and remake them into some useful product, aren’t we still addicted to nicotine, killing ourselves and others by smoking? Not to mention that this new product may not be so wonderful.
When we throw things away, it turns out that “away” is not a good place. How much longer can we pat ourselves on the back thinking that recycling is working? All you have to do is put your plastic waste, used for a nano second, in the recycle bin? Not. Does it matter how many times you reused your PET bottle or clam box? No, you still must dispose of it at some point and it lasts 500 years! We are lying to ourselves and misleading our children if we think we can fool Mother Nature.
Yes, we must recycle, but while billions are spent, and even if done perfectly, how much of anything we discard is actually separated, cleaned, melted down, flaked, reheated, extruded, and molded into something else? Very little. It is much cheaper to start from scratch. Downcycling is also a concern: more junk.
In “Trash: The Secret Life of Garbage,” CNBC’s Carl Quintanilla interviewed Charlie Moore, the amazing guy who discovered what is commonly referred to as “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”
Quintanilla compared our sophisticated system of landfills to the lack thereof in places like China, where the mountains of stinking trash with people searching through it for anything they could salvage was sickening. Our expensive landfills didn’t come out smelling much better.
According to the theory of supply and demand, too much of a commodity decreases its value. In the case of garbage, because we want to get rid of it, the price goes up. NYC’s garbage has been exported as far away as Michigan and North Carolina for decades. Read Heather Rogers or Elizabeth Royte on this subject. California exports tons of plastic waste to China, or anyone who will take it, at a price. Calculate that energy cost.
Consider whether or not we would even want a product made from recycled plastic. Do you want your baby crawling around on carpeting made from petrochemicals? Do you want to wear clothing made from polyethylene terephthalate? We suffer so many illnesses and spend so much money on diagnostics and medications when in many cases maybe it’s the chemicals.
Regarding a national fundraising event for cancer research, this is what I was told: “We have a PR problem.” The details centered around food service, water and cleanup. While hugely successful at raising millions of dollars, and sincere in their dedication, it seems the mess left behind was a stain on the organization’s image. Oh, but I’m sure they were recycling.
Here we are at least 60 years after the discovery of what is an incredible and indispensable material, facing the consequences of yet another substance abuse in terms of our consumption habits of which “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” is just one symptom. While efforts to clean up the beaches are wonderful at raising awareness, this doesn’t clean up our act. Does an alcoholic partner change because someone else cleans up behind them? By the way, there is no harvesting the gyre: it is cost-prohibitive, it would replace itself in a heartbeat, the materials collected still have to be disposed of, and any filtration would kill everything beneficial in the mix. Recycling cannot cure this illness consuming the planet and creating a plastic ocean. Quoting Charlie Moore, “Source reduction is the way to go.” There is no recycling our way out of this.

Celia Kiewit can be reached at