Robert writes about environmental and scientific issues which affect our daily lives.
The City of Garbage
Does Recycling Matter?
Recycling takes a lot of work. You have to separate your garbage and make it suitable for recycling. The people who collect the stuff want you to remove labels from cans, to make sure that the plastic you are putting in the bin is the right kind, that the glass is clean of food scraps, and so on. It's unpaid work which is foisted on you either by regulations that compel you to donate your time and effort for what is the greater good, or social pressure which makes you feel guilty if you don't. But does recycling do any good at all?
How Most of the World Really Recycles
The Recycling Bandwagon
A couple of years ago my city jumped on the recycling band wagon and made everyone buy a big blue recycling bin on wheels. Not just a blue recycling box mind you, but a huge monstrosity on with wheels and metal bars where the high tech recycling truck could grab on and lift the contents into its bin, and then take our recyclable paper, glass and metals to the local recycling center.
To finance this new project and to pay for the expensive high tech garbage - I mean recycling - truck every homeowner had to pay an extra $200 on his or her taxes. But it was a small price to pay we were told. We were helping to save the environment, reduce what was going into the landfill. Reduce, re-use was the mantra of the day.
Similar recycling initiatives have spread throughout cities in North America. But the truth that no one wants to talk about is that it does not work and recycling is a big waste of time.
Don't get me wrong, I want to save the planet. But recycling is a bandaid when you have arterial bleeding. It does no good but it does make us feel good. Its like taking a sugar placebo when the doctor should have prescribed chemotherapy; you may feel that you are getting better but the cancer is still growing. It's time to stop the self delusion and tackle, the real problem.
Why Recycling Does Not Work
But first let's talk about why recycling does not work. In principle, it should be taking newspapers, pop cans, plastic bottles, and other junk and converting it into new things so we don't have to cut down as many trees, pump as much oil, or mine as much metal. These are noble goals.
But in fact, there is little market for these recyclables. In my city, it came to light that the recycling center was overstocked with newsprint, and plastics and could not find a market for it. In fact it was losing money. So in went more tax money to keep it afloat. And the excess newsprint and plastics, where did it go? Into the landfill of course.
This bizarre charade of collecting recyclables only to then take them to the same landfill where the rest of your garbage ended up in, after you spent hours painstakingly separating them from your other refuse, is something which happens all the time in cities throughout Canada and the U.S. But no one likes to talk about it, because it's like the Emperor's New Clothes. As long as we pretend that the blue boxes are going to save the environment we can go on our business of consuming and not feel guilty that our economic system, our very culture is designed for mass self caused extinction. convert recyclables into new products is more than
Recycling Actually Poisons the Oceans
In theory, the recyclables you put in your recycling bin are going to stay out of the landfill and help save the environment. However the ugly truth is different. In many cases, the recycling center has no market for what you provide them and they take your plastics and glass and toss it in the landfill. You could have done this yourself, at no cost; but in order to maintain the illusion that we are helping the environment, the government charges you extra money and makes you peel labels off of bottles and cans, just so they stuff can end up in the same place through a roundabout route.
But not all recycling ends up in the garbage; some of it actually does get recycled. And when it does, it is even worse for the environment.
You may have seen pictures of oceans choked by floating islands of plastic garbage and read about the alarming fact that whales and sea birds are full of plastic inside their stomachs. Have you ever wondered where that plastic comes from? Most of it is from recycling.
You see, when your local recycling center collects the recycling it will usually sell it to China to get sorted. There, armies of low paid people will pick through the junk looking for the most valuable things they can recycle and whatever is left, usually low grade plastic, they unceremoniously dump it into their own rivers which carry your junk into the sea.
Of course, not all the plastic in the ocean finds its way there because of the unholy alliance between your recycling center and the recycling sweatshops of Asia, but most of it comes from there. So in fact, when you are wasting your time washing out the empty cans and peeling labels from cans in order to keep your environment clean, you are actually contributing to the death of our oceans. But who cares, doing something is what counts even if that something accomplishes the opposite of what it is supposed to do.
5 Reasons Recycling is Actually Useless
At best, recycling is useless; and often it is, ironically, a major source of waste and pollution.
- Recycling wastes fuel to transport and process waste, and so creates more pollution than it prevents.
- Most recyclables actually end up in the landfill because there is no market for them. Collecting recyclables and separating them from the rest of your garbage is a waste of time because most of it ends up in your local landfill anyway.
- In many cases, the recycling collected locally is shipped to Asian countries for processing. They sort out the best stuff and then dump the rest into the rivers, where it finds its way into our oceans. In this way, a city thousands of miles from the ocean may be indirectly dumping its garbage into the sea, by this indirect trade route with China.
- Recycling is a feel-good band-aid which really does not address the root cause of the problem: there are too many people on this planet, creating too much garbage.
The Reality of Overpopulation
The problem is that even if recycling worked as intended, which it actually does not, it is like sticking a finger in a dyke to stem the flood of water. It is too little too late.
The real problem is that there are nearly 7 billion people on this planet and these people all want and need food. clothing, fuel and space. In addition to their needs these 7 billion people also have wants that go beyond bare survival: drugs, exotic foods, and a two car garage, or whatever the local equivalent of the middle class dream might be.
To feed these needs and these wants, we are despoiling the planet. We must extract more and more, to meet the needs of today and who cares about tomorrow. Deep sea fishing trawlers now drag their nets along the ocean floor allowing nothing to escape, killing fish and dolphins and scraping the ecosystem of the ocean floor into a watery desert. The result is a temporary rise in fish production, but also a headlong rush towards an unsustainable cliff.
Already the cod fishery off of Newfoundland, which only a few hundred years ago was so rich that early explorers reported being able to fish simply by dipping buckets into the sea, has completely collapsed. The tuna is on the verge of extinction, and as it becomes more scarce, prices go up which fuels incentive for more over fishing and illegal fishing. Some major corporations are storing tons of tuna in deep freezes, betting on the day that it goes completely extinct so that they can sell the now rare stock at huge profits. A major scientific study predicts that all of the world's fisheries will collapse by 2050 due to overfishing. 1 billion people rely on fish as their main food source. And so it goes on.
And the destruction of the planet is being fueled not only by the legitimate needs of a hungry world but by the perverse and selfish needs of humankind, the only predator who does not hunt for food. In Africa the elephant is being wiped out by poachers so that they can steal their ivory tusks. The rhinocerous is being driven to extinction by Chinese traditional medical quackery that believes that it is nature's cure for poorly endowed men. And in Cambodia, the ancient rain forests are being burned and slashed because the roots of a particular tree produce a chemical used in the production of ecstasy. In South America the rain forest is being destroyed to make room for cocoa production used in the cocaine traffic as well as ranches to feed our appetites for cheap burgers.
Despite these signs of approaching catastrophe, we barely notice that the canary in the coal mine has stopped singing. This is because in the West especially we have been able to keep the ugly stuff away from us, in places most of us have never heard of. A genocidal civil war wages in the Congo over control of rare minerals used in the manufacture of cellphones, but we line up to buy the latest release and do not care. We grow fat and do not care that our mother earth is shriveling.
The Overpopulation Deniers
Some deluded conspiracy theorists see any effort to curtail our out of control population as part of a scheme by the New World Order to take over the world. These fear mongers are scared of the wrong thing and their paranoia prevents us from dealing with the real issue. Others focus their opposition on the so-called Agenda 21, the United Nations action plan for sustainable development as a threat to our way of life.
What Do Do
In order to deal with the problem we must understand what it is. The problem is that we are a selfish species and there are too many of us. No amount of recycling, even of cutting down consumption, will adequately counteract the amount of land sea and air that each human uses. And the fact is that our economic model requires over consumption and population growth, so as bad as things are now they will only get worse as time goes on - unless we do something about it.
But if we are going to save ourselves we need to start seeing over population and consumption growth as the real enemies rather than indicators of progress and economic activity. We are 7 billion people and more and more land around the world is being taken over by shanty towns or suburbs, our roads scar the landscape - great arteries to feed this bloated enterprise.
Now imagine a better world. One were there are a lot fewer humans. Not a world where everyone has died from a plague or famine, though this may be closer than you think, but a world in which people made a conscious decision to reduce their population to a manageable limit such as one or two billion people. A world that did not engage in stupid doctrinal arguments against birth control and condemned women in most of the developing world to a life of semi slavery and poverty with their children picking scraps out of a garbage dump (which is how most of the world recycles).
A less populated world would have abundant wealth for its inhabitants. The pie would be the same but everyone would get a better and larger slice. And in time, perhaps the pie would even get bigger. The oceans and rivers would recover, plants and animals and fish would come back. We owed this to ourselves - the sake of our children and for the sake of this planet.
The following sources were consulted in the writing of this article:
© 2013 Robert P
Nathan Bernardo from California, United States of America on April 01, 2013:
You've laid all this out very well; and I've thought since the 80s, when I was a kid and they first starting putting pressure on people to recycle, that the whole recycling thing was bogus; I mean, it in no way seems like an answer to the problem, considering all the factors involves, including the big and juicy corporations involved. Recycling just seems a handy distraction from our real problems. Good point about consumption and populations, and I find it fascinating and revealing that there is no place to sell all the recyclables so they end up on the heap anyway. Glad you brought this issue to light. Thanks.
Robert P (author) from Canada on February 24, 2013:
What I am saying is that recycling is an ineffective bandaid that makes us feel like we are doing something when in fact the world is heading towards disaster.
We are being buried under our own waste because the waste and garbage produced is in direct proportion to the number of people. The more people the more our planet will resemble a garbage dump.
The real problem must be tackled at the front end by reducing the number of people. Trying to reduce the amount of garbage by recycling will prove ineffective because the production of it will continue to rise. More people more problems.
Also, India and China have the worst population problems but it is a global problem - we are all still heading in the same direction. While birth rates are falling in North America and Europe, they are being compensated for by immigration so overall the population continues to rise and our environment continues to be despoiled.
A Little TRUTH on February 24, 2013:
Sorry, I’m not making the connection. The hub talks about the non-functionality of recycling in Canada and the US, and I agree. But I don’t see how an increasing population in the rest of the world, exclusive of Canada and the US, can be pointed to as the REAL problem. I don’t see the relationship between the population growth in India and a wasteful recycling program in Canada/US.
Robert P (author) from Canada on February 23, 2013:
According to http://www.overpopulationawareness.org/ the total population has already surpassed 7.098 billion and is climbing at the rate of 2.37 new people net of deaths per second. Population growth has slowed in some areas but places like India are surpassing the 1 billion mark and are growing. This places an unsustainable strain on the natural environment. Scientists estimate that once over 50 percent of the land surface is no longer natural (which is to say being farmed or covered by houses, roads and cities) global environmental collapse and mass extinction will be inevitable. We are already very close to that mark.
A Little TRUTH on February 23, 2013:
If you look at the results, the government (or someone) apparently IS doing something to reduce the population. Bloomberg reports “U.S. on Pace for Slowest Decade of Population Growth Since 1930s”; and according to the Population Reference Bureau (prb.org) the under age 18 group (the future population) has actually declined.
Robert P (author) from Canada on February 23, 2013:
I think that recycling is a convenient way for governments and politicians to seem "green" and to appear to be doing something. It lets them avoid tackling the real problem in a comprehensive fashion.
A Little TRUTH on February 23, 2013:
Excellent expose on recycling!
Like most (or all) government endeavors, recycling doesn’t even come close to achieving the stated purpose. It makes one wonder if the REAL purpose might be something different than the STATED purpose. But then if one wonders that way, one might be labeled as a deluded conspiracy theorist.