Our culture of disposability, and its costs

Van Jones spoke at a TED event in Santa Monica in November, about the economic injustice of plastic, and the culture of disposability that permeates our society.  He brings up a really interesting point when he compares the person who recycles their plastic water bottles and the person who throws them away. Typically, the person who recycles their bottle will feel satisfied that they are doing their part for the environment.  However, the cost of plastic manufacture and recycling are borne by the poor of the world.  The stretch of American known as ‘Cancer Alley,’ along 85 miles of the Mississippi River from Baton Rouge to New Orleans, produces plastic and petrochemicals, and has disproportionately high cancer rates.  Van Jones points out that plastic is often shipped to China for recycling, where more poor people process it.  When we satisfy our thirst conveniently with disposable containers, there are costs borne outside of the direct transaction, what economists call externalities.

However, our culture celebrates convenience and consumption, and many of us don’t understand the true costs of how we live.  Bill Gerlach talks about Mindful Consumption in his blog, The New Pursuit.  He writes about restoring our balance with the natural world, and becoming present to our lives, the world around us, and our place in it.  He offers some helpful strategies for mindful consumption, including buying less plastic, single-tasking, and pausing before making a purchase.  Becoming more mindful  is difficult in today’s world, with the litany of communication media, and our go-go-go lifestyles.   However, we have crucially lost touch with what it is that makes us human.  Thomas Berry, author of The Dream of the Earth, was a Catholic priest and a deep ecologist.  He wrote that our culture is distorted, and is “the origin of the deteriorating influence that we have on the life systems of the Earth.”  We would be smart to rethink our throwaway culture, because honestly, there is no ‘away.’

Is there ‘gold’ in them there hills?

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.