Recycling is a process. It exists not because of sentiment, but because the systems of industrial production and disposal that have developed over the past two centuries have found that reclaiming post-industrial and post-consumer materials is a better use of time, energy, and money than harvesting virgin resources. I elaborate on this history in Cash for Your Trash.
Recycling programs have their limits. Municipal recycling systems struggle with the hazards of manufactured goods that were not designed with disassembly in mind. Efforts to restrict problematic materials (such as New York City’s attempted ordinance to ban polystyrene food containers) face well-financed campaigns by industries resistant to taking producer responsibility for their materials. Since the 1950s, such industries have promoted the emergence of recycling collection systems to shift the burdens of waste away from producers. Design decisions (such as the shift from reusable glass bottles to disposable PET bottles) now burden recycling programs rather than Coke or Pepsi.
But recycling endures and grows. It does so because the markets for salvaged material in industrial society endure. The markets rise and fall; lower prices for copper and steel in 2015 due to problems in the Chinese economy follow price declines during the global economic meltdown of late 2008, and previous recessions and depressions dating back to the nineteenth century. Economic history suggests the decline is temporary; recycling is big business because squandering the value of discards in landfills and waterways is inefficient.
The hazards and efficiencies of recycling can always improve. Designing goods for recycling (by reducing the use of toxic or unrecyclable materials, as well as making separating of materials from the finished product easy) will allow recyclers to safely and successfully return materials to production. These measures will improve a resilient practice that has thrived at a large scale since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Human societies have recycled for millennia and the growth of this practice since the advent of mass production and disposal of industrial goods represents a rational response to what would otherwise be the squandering of value in unprecedented mountains of discards. Any analysis of waste management practices that does not recognize this history is a waste of time.
UPDATE: They did not call me as scheduled, but the segment has good information with anthropologist Robin Nagle.
I’m scheduled to be on the second hour of this week’s Science Friday with Ira Flatow talking about landfills, recycling, and trash. If your local public radio station carries both hours, you can hear it on the radio. If your local station only carries the first hour, you can find the full episode on the podcast version.
When the Chicago Recycling Coalition began, the city had no recycling and put its trash in local incinerators and landfills. Over the years, CRC has fought to provide Chicagoans more sustainable waste management and reclamation solutions. That fight continues, and it can be fueled with beer.
To celebrate its 25th anniversary, the Chicago Recycling Coalition is holding an event at Revolution Brewpub (2323 N. Milwaukee Avenue) Monday July 27 6-9pm. Have a beer and talk with CRC board members and guests about what’s improved in Chicago recycling, what CRC is fighting to improve, and what Chicagoans can do to get better recycling, yard waste, and composting services from the city in apartments, homes, schools, and workplaces.
A lot is going on in Chicago regarding waste, and not all of it is good. Come to discuss Blue Cart, the plastic bag ban, the Burke-Hansen ordinance “requiring” multi-unit dwellings to offer residents recycling services, and much more.
Featured speakers include:
Claire Micklin, who co-developed the eye-opening My Building Doesn’t Recycle! app revealing how many big residential buildings don’t offer recycling pickup)
Chris Bentley, WBEZ Curious City Reporter (who will elaborate on his recent stories investigating Chicago’s Blue Cart program and the Burke-Hansen ordinance)
Meredith C. McDermott, Chicago Public Schools Sustainability Manager (hear what’s going on with recycling in CPS)
Purchase tickets here.
$25 per person includes open bar and light hors d’oeuvres from 6:00 – 8:00 PM
$50 VIP tickets include all of the above PLUS a pre-event brewery tour at 5:30 PM
See the CRC’s website for more information, or follow the CRC on Facebook. (I’m on the CRC’s board of directors and am happy to answer questions about the event.)
Putting on my hat as board member of the Chicago Recycling Coalition, I want to alert those in the Chicago area about a terrific, exciting, and educational tour the CRC and Southeast Environmental Task Force have put together for Saturday, July 18.
To sign up for the tour, visit the Southeast Environmental Task Force website or call (773) 646-0436.
Quiet here recently due to book writing and editing. Final copyedits to Clean and White are in, and I am working on Aluminum Upcycled.
I briefly emerged from my cave to speak to City Limits about NYC’s plan to adopt single stream recycling.
Last winter, Brian Balogh of the BackStory podcast interviewed me for an episode on the history of waste. Now, the episode (including that interview as well as ones with fellow waste scholars Robin Nagle, Catherine McNeur, Brett Mizelle, Bart Elmore, and David Sklansky as well as recycling logo designer Gary Anderson) is available to hear.
If you’re curious about my family’s story as it relates to this history (and also want to hear my voice decay), click the link, as the American History Guys chose to use the part where I discuss what prompted me to write Cash for Your Trash (and much of that book’s second and third chapters).
Brian Balogh also gets an egregious pun (and my reaction to said pun) onto the podcast.