Monday, December 8, 2008

Recyclables: losing grip in a failing economy.

An article published in the Sunday edition of the New York Times, highlighted the problems confronting the recyclables market. It reports that more and more companies are electing to ship materials to landfills due to the plunging costs. This illustrates more collateral damage from the economic crisis. It also however provides an opportunity for us to re-evaluate the way we think about our wastes.

I myself, like others, would like to think that I am a conscious citizen and recycle as often as possible. The trouble is that my conscience is satisfied with just throwing it in the bin. As with my trash toss it and forget about it. I guess this is not a very eco-conscious way of thinking about waste. This in turn sparked my thoughts about two experiences I have had.

First, I am reminded of a rather distasteful field trip that I took while I was in undergrad at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. The trip was for our Ecosystems class, the one we all dreaded, to the Western Lake Superior Sanitary District, lovingly known as Whistle-D. While we were there we learned about water treatment and waste disposal, all in an effort to get us thinking about what happens after the flush. After I learned about the process I really paid attention to how I disposed of things, but the effect wore off and soon I was back to not caring.

Second, I was reminded of a trip to a recycling facility in San Jose, Costa Rica. After learning about conservation efforts in Costa Rica we were taken to a "facility" to see what I thought was one of many counter effects. The facility was basically a garage stuffed with recyclables where a family of Ticos (native Costa Ricans) would spend their days sorting through the endless mess. In my eyes it was hard to believe that this was what recycling meant there. After processing the materials they would send it off to the large waste company for processing. It was basically ineffective when viewed against the overall trash problem the nation faced.

When I put these two experience together I find that both our recycling habits and ways of thinking are about the same: Our concern for recycling stops with the bin in the garage, and our methods of recycling are no more than American-sized models of those in Costa Rica. If we are to come out of this recession a stronger nation, the recyclables industry is something that needs to be reshaped.

Congress needs to find a way to inject more capital in to the recyclables industry. This is something with a huge return on investment (ROI). It may not be in the form of cash but it would take a huge strain off of our natural resources. This would over time lower the cost of both natural and renewed resources. With a restructuring of the recyclables industry we can avoid seeing headlines like those in the Sunday NY Times. While we have Congress's attention we might as well have them do an across the board analysis of all or our production industries, because we know that the "Big Three" are not the only ones slacking.

I know this is a tough subject, as consumers we are put in a corner because we need to survive and that means buying food and all the packaging associated. We are not voiceless, we speak every time we buy and it only takes a few minutes of thought to figure out a more innovative way of changing. In fact, one man went a whole year with zero waste in NYC. If he can have zero waste we all can at least cut back in some ways. Let's be honest, its time for some serious evaluation.

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