Archive for April, 2018

The Problem with Plastics…

Image result for downcycling

My previous post discussed the growing world-wide epidemic of plastic pollution, exemplified by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.  But the problem is much more widespread and, I believe, insidious.  While I support the efforts to fight this (and all) pollution, I fear that it’s misleading to focus on far away places like Bali and Malaysia.  As it turns out, geography matters. For example, folks here in Australia are much more likely to be interested in the pollution of the waters off Bali (where many Ozzies vacation) than most Americans.

It turns out that you don’t have to travel half-way around the worlds to be confronted with plastic pollution problems. In my own hometown of Boise, Idaho, they are int he midst modifying and adapting their residential recycling program to respond to changing conditions. And we’re seeing similar problems here in Australia.

I’m no expert on this ever-changing field, but I have a few observations I’d like to make over the next few posts, starting with some musings on the very act of recycling.

First, it’s essential to realize that, with very few exceptions, we do not NOT recycle things in our culture.  As the renowned architect Bill  McDonough very accurately states, we don’t recycle, we ‘downcycle‘. Nearly everything we toss in a blue bin (and feel better about) is processed into something that has less need of the material properties of the original, then sold and used for a while but eventually thrown away.  In his famous book Cradle to Cradle, McDonough and co-author Michael Baungart argue that we simply put this material on a detour on the way to the landfill.  Your plastic water bottle can be turned in to a trendy tee-shirt, or a bench in the local park, but within a few years, it’s served that purpose and we can’t make good use of it any more.  Time for the landfill.

I had the opportunity to spend time with Bill McDonough when he visited our campus several years ago. He had a great way to talk about how ridiculous this is.  To paraphrase,  if you want to get to San Diego but find yourself heading north on I-5 in the Central Valley doing 80, slowing down to 55 won’t get you closer to your intended destination.

In other words, going more slowly away from your intended destination is still the  wrong direction!

But it hasn’t always been so. I can remember as a kid, the empty beer bottles collecting next to the downstairs fridge, waiting to be returned to the distributor where they wash and re-fill them. Now that’s recycling! (I guess the actual term is re-use, but you get what I mean).

One of the downsides of the massive network of production and distribution that has driven down costs for the past several decades (think Walmart) is that it simply didn’t pay to implement a parallel network on the back side. In other words, it’s more economical to make new glass bottles for every new case of beer than it is to collect, sort, wash and  re-label existing ones.

In my next post, I want to explore the economics of plastic “recycling” and how recent changes in the global scene have reached all the way to our kitchen garbage bins.


April 22, 2018 at 2:00 am 3 comments

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