Why bother? What can one person’s actions do? How can I make a difference, good or bad?
Ultimately recycling more or increasing recycle opportunities will not solve our current trajectory on the consumption frenzy and epic waste-making piling higher, even as I type. It is the greater and more demanding effort of behavior change that is called for. As consumers, when we refuse plastics, especially single-use convenient cups and containers in the first place, that’s where we can make a dent! It’s about the first two R’s — The focus needs to be on reducing and reusing, NOT recycling (for more on the plastic waste crisis and what you can do about it, go to bit.ly/2Clh4gc).
There is much in our lives that feels out of our control, but we can influence our own consumption habits and how what we use is discarded. We all can to a degree. Some more than others. Those of us who have the commitment, time and resources can do more and I suggest SHOULD do more.
A super simple first step is to place ONLY approved materials in recycling. Not what we wish could be recycled, but what has been confirmed in writing or verbally from the waste hauler. That effort on our part reduces the lion’s share of contaminated materials we currently “pretend” we can recycle. Just because it has a chasing arrow symbol on the bottom does not translate to “this is recyclable here.”
One grease-splattered pizza box can contaminate an entire load of clean, flattened cardboard boxes. One thoughtless person rinsing his paintbrush down the storm drain (I witnessed this last month) poisons our creeks.
What about the Golden Rule? What about treating others (including the environment) the way we wish to be treated?
If “life cycle” responsibility is initiated at the upstream developmental stage of a product by the producers, then negative downstream impacts during that product’s cycle from start to finish could make a difference. Using paint as an example; if paints were only manufactured non-toxically without VOCs (volatile organic compounds) it would be a game changer. A gold-star product would have no remnant to discard. When consumers are stuck with disposal (what to do with leftover paint products, for example) there are many literally downstream risks
Oregon is ahead of many states with its paintcare.org program to recycle paint at participating stores. This is positive, but too many of us don’t yet utilize the program (business participation is limited). The cost of goods are often higher at the front end when disposal/recycle fees are included.
It’s important to factor in “costs” by quantifying downstream impacts. When evaluating “true impacts” from our actions there are an exhausting number of considerations. Some are: pollution, carbon-generating impacts causing climate disruption/changes, increased temperatures, sea level rise, people fleeing floods and environmental degradation, loss of jobs, environmental injustice, agriculture, clean water and more. Incidents of animal, bird and bee extinctions, poisonings, plastics choking, starvation and suffering are numerous and unconscionable.
The daily conveniences many of us indulge in with regularity separate us further from our connection to the planet we all share with its limited resources.
Purchases made on line with a click and a credit card reflect instances where we did not venture out to a store to support local jobs and our economy. From the convenience of home we buy stuff and it gets delivered to our doorstep. Drinking bottled water disconnects us from a daily relationship with the health of our municipal water source.
This is a long-winded way to say that a healthy conscientious community cannot thrive in isolation of itself. Joni Mitchell’s song “Big Yellow Taxi” says it well: “Don’t it always seem to go, that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til its gone? They paved paradise, put up a parking lot. They took all the trees, and put them in a tree museum. Then they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see em’.”
Here’s the thing: It’s true we’ve already lost a lot and there is still so much more to lose. We make choices every day. We can act like it matters. We can be the change. We can tell our food producers: “Hey farmer, farmer, put away the DDT now. Give me spots on my apples, but leave me the birds and the bees. Please.” (Joni Mitchell).
Let’s wake up so we can share the smell of roses with future generations.
Risa Buck has served on the Ashland Conservation Commission and in waste prevention education for more than a dozen years. You may reach her through firstname.lastname@example.org. Find past WasteNot columns online at bit.ly/rbwastenot2.