While there may be many surveys that demonstrate an American ignorance of the difference between recycling and reducing, we don’t agree with KAB that the best way to approach waste issues in the US is to advocate recycling, trusting that everyone will understand that we really mean reducing, reusing, and recycling.
A factor in KAB’s willingness to conflate recycling and reducing might be that three of KAB’s four leadership sponsors (supporting to the tune of $1 million or more) are businesses that sell consumable goods. It would be a little like biting the hand that feeds you, for KAB to advise consumers not to buy the products its sponsors sell. The fourth $1 million sponsor is Waste Management, who is one of the largest waste management companies in North America and who makes a profit on recycling, not waste reduction.
According to David Pellow in Garbage Wars, recycling is “The label applied to a variety of practices involved in recovering and adding value to post-consumer and post-industrial waste (i.e., garbage and scrap).”
According to the City of New York Department of Sanitation: “Reduction of waste is the least understood option in waste management because it depends on altering buying habits, preferences and manufacturing (and packaging) processes that usually take place outside the locality wishing to reduce or eliminate waste.”
Recycling is not reducing.
KAB is correct when they say that recycling is the action the US most associates with environmental good. Think about the action of recycling and the action of throwing something in the garbage. In both cases you take an item that has no worth to you and physically deposit it in a designated receptacle. In both cases, it requires no further thought from you.
How did it come to be that the action we most associate with doing good for the environment (recycling) is no different than the problematic action (throwing something away) it is supposed to be a revolt against? Recycling is popular because it requires little effort on end-user’s part.
In the same way, recycling requires little effort on the manufacturer’s part. The manufacturer is not on the hook for the cost of disposing of their packaging (whether through recycling, incineration, or landfilling)–that cost is usually born by taxpayers and consumers.
So what’s not to like about recycling? Nobody has to do anything differently: we get taxpayers and consumers to chip in a little extra and instead of landfilling the disposable packaging that manufacturers utilize to deliver their products into consumers’ sweaty hands, we develop elaborate processes for re-refining that packaging into something that resembles virgin material so we can make more of the same packaging and continue the process.
Why not redesign products so that they don’t require disposable packaging? Because there is no pressing incentive. Manufacturers have no desire to reduce because they don’t have to foot the disposal bill. Taxpayers and consumers have no desire to reduce because they don’t notice that they are footing the bill, it’s rolled into your water bill and your property taxes and occasionally into the price of a coke.
And this is where KAB and the Trash Blog come to a surprising agreement: we go with recycling not because of results but because it’s easy.