Plastics recycling graph

Men’s mighty mine-machines digging in the ground,

Stealing rare minerals where they can be found.

Concrete caves with iron doors, bury it again,

While a starving frightened world fills the sea with grain.

— “Knights in White Satin,” 1969, Moody Blues

Is recycling working? Is it one of the pitfalls of capitalism and consumerism? Should we rethink the value of recycling? Should we recycle our thinking on recycling?

I wrote a column a while back on recycling. It was more about the need to recycle, how it saves energy and encouraging our personal responsibility to do so. Now I want to explore how effective it is.

Talk about disappointment!

“Good Morning America” recently had a segment on the problems with recycling along with claims that it is not working. I looked more into this issue, and I have to agree. I admit I was naive and hopeful that once I did my part to clean my plastic and consolidate my metal containers and paper products that surely the rest would take care of itself. It has not. We have been deceived for too long.

The EPA publishes the REI — or Recycling Economic Information. In my humble opinion it is more a report about how recycling affects jobs as opposed to how efficient and effective recycling is. There is a wealth of information on actual plastic recycling. One has to realize the diversity of plastics is enormous. However, the number of buyers of recycled plastic is not.

According to several reliable sources — among them, the American Chemistry Counsel — the actual amount of plastic that is recycled is about 9%. The recyclers claim that is due to dirty plastic containers, but what seems to be the real culprit is a lack of buyers for recycled products. At the time of my last column on recycling, China had just stopped taking U.S. plastics. Currently, virtually no one will take them. In other words, it’s cheaper to make new from scratch than to recycle.

Capitalism, consumerism are at a crossroadsIn order for capitalism to manifest itself, it must derive a source of materials either by permission to use federal resources such as the Bureau of Land management, which opened 87,000 acres in Utah’s national parks for mining as was done in the previous administration, or by developing ways to minimize the need to obtain such materials while ensuring that all costs are considered in the development of the product.

In the former example, the source material is essentially free except for the conciliatory campaign contribution. Couple that with reduced environmental regulation and the firm will then have an unbridled amount of fresh drinking quality water to process this material. The water is the rendered toxic, and since that toxic water was not regulated, it flows into the streams and tributaries causing illness to the fish and wildlife. The toxicity in turn causes water treatment costs to go up and increases the potential for latent illness to the local civilian population. This unbridled water use also reduces the amount of moisture in the soil making forests susceptible to fire. This adds to the cost of government, which eventually burdens the taxpayer to pay for the damages. The mining company sells its needed products, makes its profit, then shuts its doors to the toxic mess left behind.

In the latter example, a responsible firm would take steps to minimize all danger to the environment, and the costs would be factored into the final cost of the product sans the requisite campaign contribution.

The fallout of capitalism

It is my very humble opinion that capitalism thrives on waste. It is a false economic model. In order for capitalism to work, it can’t rely on not being responsible for the fallout of its actions. Capitalism must be responsible and incorporate the cost of a product as a complete picture.

For example, a lumber business that cuts down a tree to make a 2-by-4 then must replace the tree. Don’t just clear-cut a forest and leave it behind. One business can’t just mine a mineral, use clean water to process it, then return the used water untreated back into the environment. The costs of processing the water and returning it to its clean state must be factored into the total cost of the product. When the mine is depleted, then the business must return the earth to its original state.

Maybe if we were charged the entire cost, we might be more concerned about our own ecosystem.

The Big Truth

All is not lost. Our waste is nearly 100% recyclable, in that it can be reclaimed or repurposed or can be timely and safely left to decompose.

It can be repurposed, for example, to make heat for producing electricity. All plastics and metals can be recycled. Odd products such as mattresses, et al, and large wood products can be safely incinerated. Paints and other chemicals can be treated so as not to be harmful down the road and not buried in our landfills. E-waste is most difficult to recycle and the most toxic by volume. Toxic metals like lead and cadmium and dioxins are the remnants of E-waste. We need to design the potential e-waste so that they are recyclable friendly.

Going forward

What can we do to make this problem into a solution? It starts with us. How well do we recycle? We must inform our legislators that we need to enact laws to set stricter standards for packaging so that they are easily decomposable or 100% recyclable. We must work to make our consumption less.

James Bobreski is a process control engineer in the power production field for 43 years. He currently is engaged in designing robotics and sustainable power for small fruit and vegetable farming operations. He lives with his significant other Sherry and their two cats, Flash and Dash (now Dasha). He also is the author of “Alternate Energy and Climate Change in the Age of Trump,” available at Longs’ Bookstore and on Amazon.com.

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