Let's Get Circular; It Is the Only Way We Won't End Up Buried in Garbage

Edward Hopper's 'Nighthawks' painting

Nighthawks / Edward Hopper

This is a series where I take my lectures presented as adjunct professor teaching sustainable design at Ryerson University School of Interior Design in Toronto and distill them down to a sort of Pecha Kucha slideshow of the essentials. Some of this material has been shown in previous posts on TreeHugger.

75 years ago, if you wanted a cup of coffee or a bite to eat, you went to a restaurant or diner, sat down and got served your coffee in a porcelain mug and ate off a china plate. There were no litter bins on the street because there wasn't much litter. It was pretty much a closed, circular system where the restaurant owner sold you food or coffee and kind of rented you the vessel you ate or drank from.

Your friendly neighborhood bottler

credit: Coca Cola bottling plant Columbus, Ohio

Soft drinks like Coke and hard drinks like beer were made and distributed locally because bottles were expensive and heavy so they were collected, washed and refilled, but most importantly, transportation was slow and expensive. It was circular, with the producer taking responsibility for the product and its packaging, but circles operate most efficiently when they are smaller. So there were bottlers and breweries and dairies in every small city and town.

credit: Fox Photos/Getty Images

Milk and some foods worked the same way; milk came in bottles and was better fresh, so it was delivered by the milkman right to your door. If you were likely to be out, there were milk-boxes built right into the side walls of houses, an idea that would work well today for Amazon deliveries. This was what life was like; local businesses run by local people, serving a local market.

credit: Department of Transportation

Then everything changed. Back in 1919, Dwight Eisenhower was part of the first motor trip across the country by the military. It was a slow, hard slog. Then, in the Second World War, he was impressed with the German Autobahn. He became President of the United States as the Soviet Union threatened with nuclear bombs, so a vast de-densification program was started to connect everything with a mat of highways, to move corporate offices out of cities, and to promote suburban development, spreading everyone out so that the Russians would need a lot more bombs. More: But in one way, it had the opposite effect; it made it easy to move goods by truck, and to centralize production of the kinds of things that used to be made locally, like beer and Coke.

More: How sprawl was caused by the nuclear arms race, and why this matters more than ever today.

credit: Coors

Bill Coors, based in Colorado right in the middle of the country with roads leading in all directions, recognized the opportunity. He actually invented the aluminum beer can and made it open source, allowing all the other brewers to use the idea. With the network of highways, he could distribute his beer from a vastly more efficient giant brewery. I wrote earlier:

Canned beer became the American standard with the completion of the interstate highway system, which let brewers build massive centralized breweries and ship the stuff all over the country by truck. But you couldn't do that with returnable bottles, as the distribution and handling of bottles was a local business. So the brewers took their huge savings from their massive, efficient beer factories and put it into advertising and price cutting, and put almost every local brewery out of business.
credit: McDonalds

The new highways and the new suburbs and the new mobility meant new ways of eating; there is no need to spend lots of money on places for people to sit down to eat, or to have wait staff to serve them, when they can sit in their cars. It was vastly more cost-effective to have disposable packaging and not have to worry about it after. So McDonalds and other drive-in and drive-through chains proliferated around the country. It was so convenient, fast and cheap. As Emelyn Rude writes in Time: "By the 1960s, private automobiles had taken over American roads and fast-food joints catering almost exclusively in food to-go became the fastest growing facet of the restaurant industry." Now we were all eating out of paper, using foam or paper cups, straws, forks, everything was disposable. But while there may have been waste bins at the McDonalds' parking lot, there weren't any on the roads or in the cities; this was all a new phenomenon.

credit: Keep America Beautiful

The problem was that people didn't know what to do; they just threw their garbage out of their car windows or just dropped where they were. There was no culture of throwing things out, because when there were china plates and returnable bottles, there was no waste to speak of. They had to be trained. So the Keep America Beautiful organization, founding members Philip Morris, Anheuser-Busch, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola, was formed to teach Americans how to pick up after themselves with campaigns like "Don't be a litterbug 'cause every litter bit hurts" in the sixties:

And in the seventies, the famous campaign with the "Crying Indian ad" starring actor " Iron Eyes Cody, who portrayed a Native American man devastated to see the destruction of the earth's natural beauty caused by the thoughtless pollution and litter of a modern society."

He was, in fact, an Italian named Espera Oscar de Corti, but then the whole campaign was a fake too; as Heather Rogers wrote in her essay, Message in a Bottle,

KAB downplayed industry's role in despoiling the earth, while relentlessly hammering home the message of each person's responsibility for the destruction of nature, one wrapper at a time. ....KAB was a pioneer in sowing confusion about the environmental impact of mass production and consumption.
credit: Ashley Feldon, Wikipedia

So now people were mostly picking up their litter and putting it in the garbage. But according to Heather Rogers, this led to an entirely new set of problems: the dumps were all filling up.

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.

Local and State governments brought in bottle bills to put deposits on everything, which would have sent the bottlers and the entire convenience industry back to the dark ages. So they had to invent recycling.

credit: Playmobil recycling truck

But they did much more than just train us to pick up their garbage and separate it into piles; they taught us to love it. We are trained from our first Playmobil set that recycling is among the most virtuous things that we can do in our lives. Studies have shown that for many people, it is the ONLY "green" thing that they do. And it is an extraordinary scam. We have come to accept that we should carefully separate our waste and store it, then pay serious taxes for men in special trucks to come and take it away and separate it further, and then try and recover the cost by selling the stuff.

credit: Leyla Acaroglu

Leyla Acaroglu argues in Design for Disposability that recycling actually encourages consumption. We feel less guilty about throwing things away, and it gives us validation that we did the right thing. That becomes a license to buy more product, which leads to more production. She writes:

We are set to see a perpetuation of the addictive cycle that has led us to the mess we are in — that being the all-pervasive disposability practices that designers replicate, governments try to manage and clean up, and everyday citizens like you and me have to accept all of it as normal.
This is what has created the massive mess that we are in today.
Within 50 years we have moved from everyday reusable products to single-use disposable items that are a blight on our wallets and the environment. Countries spend billions of dollars every year to build and manage landfills that just compress and bury this stuff. While people complain about dirty cities and giant ocean plastic waste islands, producers continue to deflect all responsibility for the end of life management of their products, and designers are complacent in the perpetuation of stuff designed for disposability.
credit: Deer Park bottled water

They have been so successful. They invented an industry by convincing us that bottled water is better, charging us 2000 times the price for the convenience of it being in a bottle. As I noted in my review of Elizabeth Royte's Bottlemania, this was extremely well done.

Then there is the marketing of it; as one Pepsico marketing VP said to investors in 2000, "when we are done, tap water will be relegated to showers and washing dishes." And don't call those bottles garbage; Coke's "Director of Sustainable Packaging" says "Our vision is to no longer have our packaging viewed as waste but as a resource for future use."

And to make us buy more, they convinced us that we had to stay hydrated, drinking eight servings of water per day, preferably each in an individual bottle. Even though this is a total myth.

credit: Ellen Macarthur Foundation

And here is where you get the confluence of climate change and single-use plastics, because plastic is essentially a solid fossil fuel. It is half natural gas. As transportation electrifies, plastics are the future of the fossil fuel industry and could consume up to 20 percent of it. So every water bottle, bit of plastic made has its own carbon footprint from its manufacture, from its shipping across the country or across the planet. That's why we should stop calling them single-use plastics and start calling them single-use petrochemicals.

credit: Tom Ackerman, Starbucks

Starbucks tries to convince us of its green cred by recycling shipping containers, even though it is a drive-through where people idle their SUVs while they wait for their non-recyclable takeouts. Or as I noted in an earlier discussion,

What I really hate is that writing on the side of that brown container, that lists every R in the world, starting with "regenerate. reuse. recycle. renew. reclaim. readjust. replace. respect. reabsorb. recreate" and more. Messages that wrap this building in a halo of green. When we know that our biggest problem is the Carbon Dioxide being spit out in the SUVs. This building is just another cog in sprawl-automobile-energy industrial complex that we have to change if we are going to survive and prosper. We have to stop sprawl, not glorify it; covering it in the R-words is sanctimonious and delusional, and Starbucks knows it.
credit: Lloyd Alter

Then there is the poster child for everything that is wrong about our disposable society, the coffee pod. Companies pretend to have recycling programs because they know it makes us feel better, but imagine the poor schlepper trying to do all day what I tried to do in a hotel room in Vancouver, to take one of these apart. It is a complex mix of plastic, coffee and foil, costing five times as much as making your own. But hey, it's convenient. And as I noted,

But even if it is recyclable, it doesn’t mean that it gets recycled; the world is awash in plastics right now that recycling programs cannot get rid of since the Chinese shut the door on dirty plastics. And it changes none of the other factors, including the footprint of making the plastics and the pods and the aluminum foil in the first place, and the ridiculous cost per cup.
credit: Win McNamee/Getty Images

Americans got a good look at what this linear economy looks like when the system broke down during the shutdown of government services earlier this year. I wrote: Some of the photos are extraordinary, a city covered in garbage – all these beautiful federally controlled and maintained parks and properties, a complete mess. It becomes a graphic demonstration of how the taxpayer essentially subsidizes the food industry, which sells us the packaging but takes no responsibility for dealing with it after the fact. Shut down the government and the fast food ecosystem breaks down in front of your eyes.

credit: Ellen MacArthur Foundation

It was all a scam anyhow; most of the recyclable plastic wasn't recycled into benches or anything; It was never circular; only two percent of plastics were actually turned into the same thing they started as. 8 percent might turn into a bench or plastic lumber or a fleece vest. Most got landfilled or incinerated or leaked into the ocean. When China closed its doors to our waste it became essentially worthless. The entire recycling system has been exposed as a Potemkin Village where a lot of people look busy and it costs everybody a lot of money, but doesn't really do much at all except make people feel good. That's why we have to build a circular economy, where there is full producer responsibility for what they make, and it all goes back to them.

credit: Linear to Circular economy

The linear economy just eats up resources and fill our landfills and oceans, and is a disaster. The slightly modified reuse economy in this chart recycles a bit, but the vast majority ends up as non-recyclable waste. But in the circular economy, everything is reused, refilled, repaired and repurposed so that only a little bit of new input is needed for the growing wealth happening in much of the world, replacing what breaks, and providing for new innovations.

credit: Edward Hopper via Wikipedia

If we are truly going to go circular, we have to change more than just our coffee cups, we have to change our culture. We started this slideshow with Edward Hopper and will end with it because one could go on forever, but it is a culture of sitting down in restaurants, of drinking coffee like Italians, buying beer in refillable and returnable bottles like they do in most of the world. It is going to require lifestyle changes and some loss of convenience. But we do also get to slow down and smell the coffee. It might be fun. More to come next week about what we can do to really go in circles.