It's America Recycles Day on November 15th. It's also an opportunity for TreeHugger to recycle our traditional rant about this bit of corporate greenwashing. The sponsors of this grand event have a new campaign, "I want to be recycled" in which a plastic bottle cries out "I want to be a bench."
It's an interesting bit of anthropomorphism, kind of like a human considering reincarnation and saying "I want to be a slug", for as William McDonough and Michael Braungart pointed out in Cradle to Cradle, there's not much else that bottle can aspire to, and to be a bench it has to be mixed with fungicides, stabilizers, chemical and mineral additives and more. Not to disparage slugs, but it really is a lower form of life.
The campaign is brought to you by the usual gang, Alcoa and the American Chemistry Council who make the containers that get thrown away; Anheuser-Busch and Nestle Waters who sell them, among others 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.
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.
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
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.