When I covered a recent RI gubernatorial debate for Ecori.org, I was amazed at how similar the politicians, across the ideological spectrum from Conservative to Liberal, spoke about the virtues of recycling as much as possible. Of course, the Republican admitted that he was going to likely cut the budget of the RI Department of Environmental Management, and the more liberal politicians promised to increase or at least maintain the budget. As a result, it is difficult to imagine the Republican implementing expanded recycling.
However, the trade dispute between China and Japan got me thinking. We rely on China for many rare earth metals, crucial to modern manufacturing. Japan responded to its crisis, and the resultant trade disputes with China, by expanding the recycling of existing electronics to obtain those much needed rare earth metals. Here in the United States, it seems like new technological innovations come out at an exponential pace – microchips become smaller, capabilities increase. That means that the electronic items awaiting disposal will only continue to increase.
During a visit to the state dump earlier this year, I noticed a lot of computer equipment awaiting disposal. The question I have, is are we following Japan’s lead and recycling the materials in these old electronics? While safely recycling electronic equipment requires a lot of safety procedures, and is expensive, it makes sense that we would start to guard these old phones, printers, computers, etc. like the gold that they are. In fact, it seems like we are in an age where efficient recycling could be a boom industry. Last time I checked, we can use all the boom industries we can get here in the United States. Of course the other benefit to complete recycling would be to prevent dangerous substances from re-entering the environment where we don’t want them to.
On another note, the landfill in Rhode Island has capacity, at current rates, for only another 15-20 years. Given that people don’t want dumps in their backyard (NIMBY), it only makes sense that we push Rhode Island to recycle and compost as much as possible. Rhode Island was the first state in the union to mandate recycling. Now we can take the lead and be the first to mandate expanded recycling – for example, find a way to recycle all types of plastic, including the pervasive plastic drink cups. Right now, only blown plastic with a narrow lid can be recycled. Additionally, lets mandate composting, and provide the containers to do it. If we put enough of a cost on throwing materials away, it will discourage cheaply made goods designed to fail and be replaced. Reducing the throughput of raw materials is key to moving towards a sustainable economy. If we provide the right incentives, like all the gubernatorial candidates claimed they wanted to do, we can make a positive change.