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In Response to ‘The Reign of Recycling’

John Tierney recently wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times. He bemoaned recycling as a practice, pointing out that burying garbage has made sense for cities and municipalities for centuries, and that when it comes to cost – landfills > recycling.

Recycling, he claims, is outdated, costly, and the only reason we keep doing it is through a misguided sense of duty to help assuage our first-world guilt at the enormous carbon-footprints we are individually responsible for.

I still believe that recycling is important.

Tierney’s facts, statistics, and arguments (up for debate at Medium) around recycling focus solely on the concept of recycling in the US. That’s fine, it was a piece after all, written for the NYT. What this fails to take into consideration however, is that recycling is very much a global industry and that the effects of recycling or not recycling are not the same in every country or every city around the world.

He explains why it would be cheaper for U.S. municipalities to continue burying our waste rather than sorting and recycling it. Fine. But what about places that don’t have municipal waste systems? What about the communities, neighborhoods, and villages for whom there is no waste collection? What about when the only option you have as an individual is to burn or bury your household waste?

There are communities left to deal with their own waste. Plastic is clogging canals and streets causing flooding and spreading communicable disease every time it rains. After enough rain, that waste makes its way out to the ocean. I don’t think I have to go into the terrifying statistics and stories (but I will share a link) of how we are ruining our oceans – and while international waters don’t fall into any one country’s purview – I think we can agree that the health of an ecosystem covering 71% of our planet is important to all of us.

Forget the planet. What about the communities in which the opportunity to make money from the collection of recyclables is the difference between buying food that day or not? The difference between sending your kids to school or not?

For many places around the world, recycling is not just a way to feel warm and fuzzy – it is a real solution to big problems.

Recycling is important.

Recycling may cost more than just burying waste and in the U.S. we are privileged enough to even have that option. But we are also a country that doesn’t have to make decisions based on what is cheapest.

Our world is in a state of crisis, but the U.S. and other developed countries will feel the effects of climate change far less than the developing worldWe can sit around and argue whether or not it is cheaper for us to landfill plastic or recycle it, but just because we can doesn’t mean we should. I would argue that because we can, it is our absolute responsibility to, as Tierney says, “pay for the privilege” of recycling.

It has been said in the Thread office that we hope our children find the idea of burying perfectly good materials in landfills ludicrous. The recycling industry is ripe for innovation. With the amount of raw materials we have already produced, the decision to continue manufacturing virgin products is lazy at best and wasteful at worst.

Limiting our understanding of the impact of recycling to the financial bottom line in one country is an unrealistic way to understand this industry. Just because we can afford to keep making new stuff to bury it, doesn’t mean we should. We’re better than that. Or, I’d like to think we are.




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