A Modest Proposal IV: Outlaw Recycling
Let’s take one unthinkable step back to make one massive leap forward.
Recycling is a lie. It is a comforting fiction we tell ourselves to avoid having to change. “Don’t worry about all that plastic you’re using. Don’t worry about the fact that once produced, it is a more or less permanent addition to the planet. It’ll all get reused.”
Let’s end the lie, if it will help us see and solve the real problem. In that spirit, I hereby propose: let’s outlaw recycling and make ourselves appropriately uncomfortable with the idea that over-consumption has no cost.
Like “carbon neutral” and “sustainability,” recycling allows us to avoid confronting the real problem. And we all know it doesn’t actually do anything. If recycling actually reduced waste, the need for more plastic would go down; but as John Oliver shared on his show (before the narrative moved on, as it always does), plastic production is increasing exponentially.
We didn’t need the numbers, though, to know recycling wasn’t a real solution for anything but avoiding guilt.
Think about the things they make from post-consumer plastic. For me, the thing that comes to mind is the outdoor furniture they make from recycled milk bottles and such. They are ugly. No one wants them. True story: a set of recycled benches was donated to a community garden near me once. The place was run by the biggest group of tree huggers you’ve ever met, and they couldn’t unload those things fast enough. They fobbed them off on another garden so fast, it made my head spin. And yes, there is some CPG packaging and other things made from post-consumer waste (I even found this helpful Buzzfeed article with 19 examples — 19!), but just a cursory review tells you instinctively: there is no way the amount of time and effort it takes to produce these tiny little items can possibly compete with the skyrocketing demand for more, new plastic.
There’s a bigger catch, though. Even if people actually wanted recycled plastic, it doesn’t exactly solve the problem, does it? Recycled plastic is still plastic. It will still take thousands of years to break down. We’ve just kicked the can a tiny little distance down the road.
Recycling just allows us to further pretend that there is no cost to this. Nowhere in our economic system is the true cost of waste represented, because we’re afraid of what it will do to commerce. Consider TV’s for a second. I can buy a 65" TV for just $450. That is just a ridiculously cheap price for something that is filled with myriad components that will never break down. Plastic housings. Circuit boards. Screens. These things live forever, so the things they go into should have a very long life. Instead, they’re designed to be obsoleted in a matter of years and replaced without much thought. This business model is only made by possible through subsidized trash, the worst of all the false economies.
You can’t simply charge the consumer for the cost of disposal. In a depressing statement on just who we are, we already know what happens when you raise the fees on garbage disposal: people dump illegally. You can charge it at the point of sale, but that carries the real risk that if enough consumers just pay the price, manufacturers have no reason to produce less disposable products.
No, a better solution is to bake the true cost of disposal into the cost of production. Tax the source, at a level that is meaningful. In other words, it has to be significantly less profitable to produce something with a ton of plastic or electronic components than it is to produce something that truly can break down and will last a long time.
If we did this, manufacturing would change. Manufacturers would have incentives to produce things designed to last longer and cost more, but cost less than things designed to become trash in a short period of time. Things would likely be designed to be upgraded, rather than obsoleted.
I can already hear the naysayers revving up all the counter-arguments. Our economy will crash! It’s socialism! Big government is coming to steal my happy meal…or something.
Sigh. Unfortunately, we live in a country of absolutes. We are weirdly pessimistic people. For all our can-do rah-rah-rahism, it’s strange how quick we are to say “it can’t be done” as soon as anyone utters a peep about changing our lifestyle the littlest bit. It’s like we love fossil fuels, which is strange. In my conception of liberty or self-sufficiency or heroism, “whether you use oil” doesn’t show up at all.
We’re a smart species. Our economy is not nearly as brittle as we like to think. If it can survive COVID, it can survive a more useful set of guardrails. And that’s what I’m talking about. It’s still capitalism, but with us all saying capitalism has to serve the purpose of life, not vice versa.
The reward is more than worth it: continued life on this planet. We can protect life in all its forms, but not if we keep deceiving ourselves into thinking we’re already doing enough.