Every other Wednesday is recycling day. As usual, I leave it to the last minute, frantically sorting out paper, plastic, metal, and glass with one ear tuned to the sound of the recycling truck coming down the street. I can’t miss it, because it would be another two weeks before the next pick-up and god knows our front porch would be overflowing with recycling by then. I haul the load to the sidewalk, running back to pick up the overflow that’s trailing behind me, and pile the extra recycling in a reusable grocery bag beside the blue bin. The truck arrives soon after — phew, just in time — and the boys stand glued to the window, watching the big mechanized arms lift the recycling up and dump it into the truck. I feel satisfied that so many of my tuna cans, peanut butter jars, and detergent boxes will be turned into something else, but there’s also a niggling sensation of discomfort. It’s good to recycle, but it’s a bit disturbing that we have to recycle so much.
This has been bothering me for a while, which is why I was particularly intrigued by an article my friend Lloyd Alter shared on Facebook last week called “Let’s stop hiding behind recycling and be honest about consumption” by George Monbiot. (Lloyd is the managing editor for Treehugger, an amazing website that strives for “mainstream sustainability with a modern aesthetic.” You should check it out.) Monbiot’s article calls attention to the proverbial ‘elephant in the room,’ saying that “every society has topics it does not discuss because these are the issues which challenge its comfortable assumptions.” In this case, it’s recycling. We think we can justify rampant consumption since we’re “crazy about recycling,” but we’re ignoring the fact that consumption itself is a major problem.
One fascinating point he made was the dishonest calculation of carbon emissions. Western nations might feel proud about reductions in carbon emissions, but the fact is that we’ve off-shored production of most of the things we buy to countries like India and China, so really we’re just not ‘paying’ for the emissions of the goods we consume. This makes foreign countries look far worse. If Western countries accounted for the carbon emissions produced by the goods we consume, then China’s carbon emissions would go down by 45% and ours would increase dramatically. Isn’t that mind-boggling? I’ve never thought of it in that way, but it makes perfect sense.
Monbiot’s basic premise is that we need to stop consuming so much, which is a tough pill to swallow, living in this society that worships shopping and prescribes “retail therapy” for every kind of ill. I like to think of myself as someone who doesn’t shop very much — thank you, small town life, for restricting my retail opportunities! — but the fact is that I still buy stuff as I crave or need it. There’s little left of the “frugality mentality” that previous generations grew up with. How often do you hear, “I’ll just make do without it.” Because so many things are so cheap, it’s easy to afford a brand new shirt made in China that will stretch out after two washes and promptly get relegated to the back of the closet. I once read about a woman who vowed never to buy anything that wouldn’t last at least five years. This meant buying fewer, more expensive, and higher quality items. I like that idea. It seems a lot more responsible.
Anyways, I highly recommend Monbiot’s article. Here’s an informative little animation along the same lines in case you’re pressed for time. (Or just watch it anyways.)