It's America Recycles Day, the annual celebration of a culture of disposability

America Recycles Day
© America Recycles Day

Gather round and hear the tale of America Recycles Day, our annual rant about corporate greenwashing, but first a word about this year's sponsors:

sponsorsAmerica Recycles Day sponsors/Screen capture

This year the sponsors list is shorter than usual, but includes such stalwarts of sustainability as Keurig Green Mountain, responsible for millions upon millions of marginally recyclable coffee pods that eat up resources and fill up dumps. They pretend to support recycling but nobody does it because it is not worth the trouble. Yet here they are, a sponsor of America Recycles Day. I have noted:

What does “recyclable” actually mean? Generally, it means that some poor schlepper has to separate the aluminum foil lid from the plastic bottom and scrape out the coffee grounds so that the materials can be reprocessed. The owner of the machine, who bought it for the convenience, is not likely to do it and get grounds under their fingernails. Seriously, if people don’t care enough to make coffee, they are going to care enough to go through that? So they get thrown out.

And then there is H&M, purveyor of fast fashion that, as Katherine has described it, will never be sustainable, no matter what companies say.

Fast fashion and sustainability are an oxymoron. The whole idea behind fast fashion is to churn out cheap new collections and stimulate consumption, and there’s nothing sustainable about that. It’s impossible to produce ethical, eco-friendly clothing at the quantity and rate that fast fashion demands while maintaining genuinely high and environmentally sustainable standards.

Waste Management is no surprise; they get paid either way, to haul the garbage or the recycling. Municipalities pay them billions to cart it all away, the more the merrier for them.

Indorama Ventures is a new sponsor; I had to look them up. They are now one of the largest manufacturers of PET resins, the stuff that water and other disposable bottles are made of. They also make PTA and other feedstocks that are used to make PET.

Through organic growth, strategic acquisitions, and expansions we have grown today to operate 27 production facilities across 16 countries with a combined capacity to produce 4.4 million tons of PET polymers. After the start up of AlphaPet facility at Decatur, U.S.A. Now we are the largest PET producer in the world.

But the most egregious of all is the American Chemistry Council, that spends much time and money fighting every effort to eliminate plastic bag laws and any attempt to minimize the use of bottled water, which does not want to be a bench. Even they admit in their latest press release that recycling rates are actually down: "Following more than 20 consecutive years of growth, factors that contributed to the recent decline included a slight drop in material collected for recycling, changing export markets, and increased contamination of recyclables." There are only so many benches needed, but more importantly, China has stopped importing American waste. Nobody wants the stuff, which is why 70 percent of it is going to the dump. But if you feel that it is OK to drink bottled water because hey, you recycle, it is fine with them, have another!

All these companies are not sponsoring America Recycles Day because they are suddenly feeling guilty. If you look at the history of recycling in America, it was invented as a way to keep the wheels of the plastics industry turning as dumps filled up across America and municipalities started considering deposit and return rules. It is all about making more stuff.

recycleI want to be recycled/Screen capture

Here is the background, from a previous year:

Gather round, here is the whole story about the people who are patting you on the head for picking up their crap and and sorting it into neat little piles so that you can then pay your city or town to take away and ship across the country so somebody can melt it and make another bench. But only a little more than a quarter of those bottles do make it that far, because the economics aren't there and many towns find it cheaper to just dump it in a hole in the ground. And that's exactly what happens to 30 million tons of the stuff every year, which is the real story behind America Recycles Day.

Our grandparents didn't have this problem; in their day, you took your bottles back to the store and you got your deposit returned. It wasn't that big a deal, and the bottlers of Coke and brewers of beer were all local so they weren't travelling that far. As recently as Earth Day in 1970, Recycling had a different meaning. Coke was acknowledging the environmental superiority of returnable, refillable bottles, saying " What the world needs today are containers that recycle… So buy Coca-Cola in returnable bottles. It’s best for the environment and your best value."

But it was already too late; ever since Miss Concrete and Miss Blacktop opened the interstate highway system, the brewers and bottlers found it was a lot cheaper to centralize production in giant facilities, and shipping heavy glass bottles back for refilling was too expensive, so they switched to cans and disposable bottles.

But since there weren't takeout foods in paper trays and disposable bottles, there weren't any garbage cans and people didn't really know what to do, so they were throwing them out their car windows and into gutters. So American Can, Owens-Illinois and the big bottlers founded Keep America Beautiful, hired an Italian known as Iron Eyes Cody, all to train us in picking up their garbage. And it worked. This created a new problem, as Heather Roberts described in Message in a Bottle:

All this eco-friendly activity put business and manufacturers on the defensive. With landfill space shrinking, new incinerators ruled out, water dumping long ago outlawed and the public becoming more environmentally aware by the hour, the solutions to the garbage disposal problem were narrowing. Looking forward, manufacturers must have perceived their range of options as truly horrifying: bans on certain materials and industrial processes; production controls; minimum standards for product durability.

adopt road photo

And that's why we have the American Chemistry Council, Nestle Water and Alcoa being such big fans of recycling. First they have trained us to pick up their garbage, to even dress up on orange vests and walk down the sides of highways picking up their empties. Then they taught us that melting it all down is actually environmentally correct, when they know that refilling is a whole lot better. But there is a lot of money to be made making bottles and filling them and letting the customer pay for getting rid of them. As Heather Rogers noted in an interview:

Recycling deals with the problem of waste after it's been created. It enables a mass production system that's reliant on wasting to continue essentially unaltered. But in the way that it allows that, the key ways, recycling is something that happens after production, but also it works at a cultural level to convince people that, wasting as much as they do, if they recycle it, everything is going to be ok. It's not. It obscures the reality of the situation.

Recycling is good to do. I recycle. But if you imagine that somehow it will address the deeper larger environmental problems that we face is bordering on delusional.

We are trapped in a vicious Recycle; Lets go zero waste instead.

beer refill ratesLloyd Alter with info from Heather Rogers/CC BY 2.0

There is really no reason not to have a system where people refill their bottles instead of recycling them; just north of the border in Ontario, 88% of bottles are returned and refilled an average of 17 times. And the really crazy thing about it is that the distribution system is owned by the big international brewers, Anheuser-Busch InBev, Molson Coors and Sapporo, so they can't say it doesn't work. They make a lot of money washing and refilling bottles; there is a real business case that can be made for zero waste in beer.

Practice the 7 Rs instead

Rethinking Recycling from Margaret Badore on Vimeo.

There is a lot of money to be saved by consumers in alternatives to recycling; thats why we push the Seven Rs:

Reduce: Just use less.
Return: Producers should take back what they sell.
Reuse: Almost boring, but we throw too much stuff out too soon.
Repair: Fix and mend things rather than replacing them.
Refill: In Ontario Canada, 88% of beer bottles are returned to the beer store, washed and refilled; just south of the border in the USA, the number drops to under 5%.
Rot: Compost what is left over, turning it into valuable nutrients.
Refuse: Simply refuse to accept this crap from the manufacturers any more.

Recycling isn't on the list, because we aren't going to reinforce a culture of disposability.

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