Put the “Cycle” Back in in Recycle

Neoliberalism, as a loosely defined set of political beliefs, calls for more individual freedom and autonomy, resulting in increased responsibility for each person to address major societal issues. ‘Individualization’ is the process by which responsibility for addressing major environmental issues such as climate change is placed on individuals.

                                                ~ Sydney A. Page-Hayes

I take a more relaxed approached to recycling — if it’s really gunked up, I’ll wash it out. Otherwise, it goes right into the bin. Okay, I know that the peanut butter jar should be washed, but what about the butter tubs? Really?

We pay for curbside recycling service and do a pretty good job of separating recyclables from trash. Lately, cardboard has made up a greater portion of our recycling and it requires more work to break it down and fit it into the bin. We discontinued daily newspaper delivery and read it online so we don’t create so much paper waste for recycling. We maintain a large compost pile for yard and kitchen wastes and are generally careful about what we throw in the trash.

It seems that a whole lot of the pressure to save the planet has been placed on us as individuals. Does washing out a mayo jar really matter? I agree that a small action by one individual can be important if others join in and a whole lot of individuals take that step. But I have to ask why the mayo comes in a container that’s hard to recycle unless cleaned first.

I know that, in general, people are slobs. Go anywhere that humans have been and you find litter everywhere. There’s a college stadium at the end of our residential street and after every sports event, our yards and the sidewalk are littered with trash. I know that much littering is inadvertent, but being careless is never a great excuse for anything.

We have long tended to think of ‘green’ behaviors as the responsibility of the individual, not society at large, the corporate world or the government. According to a study by Sydney Page-Hayes, “With increased individualization, cognitive barriers to pro-environmental behavior (PEB) are exacerbated as private choices become politicized and increased pressure is put on individuals to act. Moreover, instead of focusing on changes that can be made more easily by producers, researchers expect consumers at the end of the production chain to ameliorate the problems created in large part by producers. “

So, what was at first an anti-littering campaign (remember the crying Indian ad?) aided by the push to recycle the beer cans littering the roadsides (reportedly initiated by Joseph Coors who didn’t like having his name associated with litter), soon became the responsibility of every individual and the original producers were off the hook.

Michela Barnett notes, “In the midst of a mounting plastic crisis, the biggest plastic polluters keep pushing better consumer recycling behaviors as the solution. The plastic waste problem is not going to be solved by doubling down on our efforts to educate the public to recycle better. It can be solved by policies that prevent hard-to-recycle items from ever being created and requiring producers to take responsibility for the waste their products become.”

“The mounting accumulation of packaging and disposable goods prompted more than 1,000 legislative attempts to ban, tax, or incentivize the return of disposable items in the 1970s. The beverage and packaging industry successfully spent millions of dollars fighting these regulatory efforts.”

Melissa Breyer reports, “The enormous scale of global plastic production leads to an enormous amount of plastic waste, much of which finds its way into the oceans.”

However, the COVID pandemic has worsened our plastic crisis. Lloyd Alter reports, “Alas, the take-out chickens have come home to roost; thanks to the pandemic, we are using more single-use plastic than ever, we are recycling less than ever, and in many cases we are not even bothering to pick up after ourselves … bars are serving drinks in plastic cups, supermarkets are wrapping once loose fruits and baked goods in plastic and offices are adding plastic coverings to everything from doorknobs to elevator buttons.”

Alex Lubben sees plastic recycling as a lost cause, quoting Fredric Bauer of Lund University, “The world is flooded with plastic already, and it seems that supply is going to continue to grow ‘I’m afraid we’re going to drown in it.’”

Melissa Breyer is a little more optimistic, “Meanwhile, recycling is disorganized, confusing, and broken. Of all the plastic waste we have created, only nine percent has been recycled … As a consumer, there is only one sure way to ensure that your plastic waste isn’t ending up in the ocean — don’t buy the plastic in the first place.”

Michaela Barnett sees one solution, “But we don’t have another 50 years to try to recycle and educate our way out of the problem. We need legislation forcing producers to take responsibility for their waste, and we need it now.”

Lloyd Alter agrees, “That’s the only way to deal with the problem post-pandemic: Make everyone from the producer to the consumer pay the real, total cost of dealing with plastic upfront, and aim for a zero-waste society.”

Think we can accomplish this? After all, we’re only human.

Additional information:

Lloyd Alter, Thanks to the Coronavirus, We Really are Being Buried in Plastic, July 06, 2020, TreeHugger

Michaela Barnett, The Lie Behind Plastic Pollution Is That We’re Responsible, 6/29/20, Gismodo

Melissa Breyer, Europe’s Plastic Recycling is Getting Dumped in the Ocean, July 03, 2020, TreeHugger

Alex Lubben, The Pandemic Is Bringing Back Single-Use Plastics in a Huge Way, 11 May 2020, VICE

Sydney A. Page-Hayes, Equal Responsibility, Unequal Ability, May 11, 2015, Lund University International Master’s Programme in Environmental Studies and Sustainability Science

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