My favorite day of the year is a shadow of its former self.
I used to say that November 15, America Recycles Day, was my favorite day of the year, “more comedic than April Fools Day and scarier than Hallowe'en”. It was the day that manufacturers of single use packaging and other waste patted us all on the heads for picking up their crap. In my first post back in 2008 when the pictures were small and they didn't censor my headlines, I wrote:
Let's call recycling what it is – a fraud, a sham, a scam perpetrated by big business on the citizens and municipalities of America. Look who sponsors the National Recycling Coalition, behind America Recycles Day: Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Anheuser-Busch, Coors, Owens-Illinois, International Bottled Water Association, the same people who brought you that other fraud, Keep America Beautiful. Recycling is simply the transfer of producer responsibility for what they produce to the taxpayer who has to pick it up and take it away.
Or as I noted in another year, calling ARD the annual greenwashing homage to a culture of disposability:
Recycling makes you feel good about buying disposable packaging and sorting it into neat little piles so that you can then pay your city or town to take away and ship across the country or farther so that somebody can melt it and downcycle it into a bench if you are lucky.”
The sponsors list has changed a lot from those heady days. The lead sponsor is Cox Enterprises, a media company from Atlanta. Other sponsors are a better fit; there's Coors Light and the International Bottled Water Association, who sell us all the cans and bottles, and three big recycling companies that our municipal governments all pay to take away all the cans and bottles. I don't quite see the fit for Maserich, a real estate developer, or Northrop Grumman, described in Wikipedia as “one of the world's largest weapons manufacturers and military technology providers.”
Many of the usual suspects are lying low this year, possibly because it has been a terrible year for the recycling industry, as all these chickens we have talked about for years have come home to roost.
Recycling was really just an evolution of the Keep America Beautiful campaigns where they taught Americans to pick up after themselves, the ‘Don't Be a Litterbug' calls from the fifties and sixties. Now we not only had to pick it up, but we had to separate it.
But it all fell apart when China stopped the import of American waste, and the system broke down. Prices for scrap paper and plastic collapsed, and municipalities can no longer sell it to recyclers; instead, they are using taxpayers' money to pay them to take it away, often to landfills.
It has got so bad that even aluminum is problematic; much of it was shipped to China for recycling so now there is a glut of it, and many of the users prefer virgin aluminum, so there actually isn't enough demand for the recycled stuff.
Since that wasn't working any more, now the industry has hijacked the idea of the circular economy, where they are developing fancy technologies to convert, decompose or purify plastics back into fuels or feedstocks. But this is also a sham; the petrochemical industry is spending billions on new plastic production. The stuff they make from all this vapourware recycling technology will be too expensive to compete, and still depends on us picking it all up. More….
This will never work.
The problem with their idea of a plastic based circular economy is that it becomes really complicated when you are trying to bend what was fundamentally designed as a linear economy. We have to start at the beginning and rethink it.
We have seen what happens when the system breaks down.
Linear is more profitable because someone else, often the government, picks up part of the tab. Now, the drive-ins proliferate and take-out dominates. The entire industry is built on the linear economy. It exists entirely because of the development of single-use packaging where you buy, take away, and then throw away. It is the raison d'être. You didn't have waste bins and trash pickup or cup holders in cars or any of this giant ecosystem based on a linear system of single-use packaging. It is a complicated dance with many parts; Americans are seeing what happens when parts of it break down and the single-use packaging doesn't get picked up by taxpayers with their subsidy to the packaging industry. It is almost impossible to make it truly circular; that would mean recovering all those cups and recycling them into new cups. It goes against the entire concept of convenience.
Katherine Martinko of TreeHugger really inspired me to rethink this in a post she did on drinking coffee like Italians:
What needs to change instead is American eating culture, which is the real driving force behind this excessive waste. When so many people eat on the go and replace sit-down meals with portable snacks, it's no wonder we have a packaging waste catastrophe.
It is bigger than just having a new biodegradable plastic or a fancy condensing or vaporizing circular recycling system.
It becomes more clear every day that we have never had a real recycling system, just a very long linear one that went from the producer through our homes to China. Attempts to make it circular through recycling are not going to work because these companies are selling convenience as well as coffee or pop, and will keep inventing ways to sell single-use products, even if they make up pretend recycling programs like Keurig or new pretend plastic substitutes that miraculously turn into plant food.
Instead, we have to return to what we had before this started 60 years ago: refillable bottles, cooking real food, drinking coffee from a cup and deposits on everything. Because recycling is BS, and we can't just throw it all in a hole.
Since the last America Recycles Day, it has become clear how this has all been embedded in our lives, how the entire economy has become dependent on disposable single use packaging. That's how the food chain works, how Amazon works, how everything works. I called it the Convenience Industrial Complex.
The problem is that, over the last 60 years, every aspect of our lives has changed because of disposables. We live in a totally linear world where trees and bauxite and petroleum are turned into the paper and aluminum and plastics that are part of everything we touch. It has created this Convenience Industrial Complex. It's structural. It's cultural. Changing it is going to be far more difficult because it permeates every aspect of the economy.
American Recycles Day is pretty low key this year, because everyone realizes that it is running on fumes. In 2011, I suggested that it should be renamed Zero Waste Day; I don't know what we should call it now. Perhaps it should just slink away, now that it is fading into irrelevance. Back in 2011 an industry rep asked us to imagine life without single use packages like “the go-anywhere juice box that makes it effortless to have a healthy, sterile drink whenever want or need arises.” I wrote:
I imagine milk in a washable glass or a lunchbox with a refillable water bottle. I imagine a beer in a refillable bottle like the rest of the world outside the US enjoys, and eating a meal in a restaurant, not a car. I imagine a world of corporate responsibility for what they sell, which would be a world without recycling, because it is a world without waste. Now that would be worth celebrating.
My favorite day of the year is a shadow of its former self.