In the course of nearly a decade spent working with and learning about waste streams and recycling technologies, I’ve managed to visit most of the countries that boast world-class reprocessing and recycling facilities and high percentages of waste diverted to other uses, as well as some at the bottom of the ‘refuse heap’. These experiences and exposures have been of immense value to me in developing patented systems that today are being used throughout the reprocessing industry. But they’ve also led me to the realization that the ultimate success of our efforts won’t be dependent on offering incentives, rewards or points to encourage individuals to recycle, as I once thought.
What I have instead concluded is that making recycling and waste diversion programs work over the long haul will require something far more enduring than an appeal to short-term material desires. The one thing that can enable us to go from being a ‘throwaway society’ that is ever more dependent on a landfill lifestyle to one that is essentially landfill-free, and in which recycling becomes an ingrained habit, is instilling in consumers a new sense of respect for what they once considered to be “garbage.”
By respect, I’m talking about thinking of refuse as a precious resource, rather than something for which there is no further use – for example, giving consumers an appreciation of the “eternal life” of plastic that enables it to be reused over and over again. Such respect is what prompts us to want to protect and preserve things, rather than destroy, devalue or neglect them. Its an ideal we can also apply to the people with whom we share this wonderful planet, and whom we all too often tend to think of as “disposable” by virtue of their ethnicity or economic status. In essence, what our parents and teachers used to tell us was right: we need to be taught a little respect, as well as discipline – only respect for things we once might never have thought worthy of it, and the discipline to take that extra little bit of effort to deposit something in a recycling bin instead of simply “tossing” it. And not for any reward other than knowing we’re doing something out of respect for, and that will benefit society and the planet.
In general, without cultivating such respect as a founding principle of achieving zero-waste initiatives, they won’t last. There is a reason that recycling programs in this country and around the world are stalled at current collection levels, which in some cases are so low they’re practically a joke. A recent Los Angeles Times article reported that about $11.4 billion dollars worth of recyclables ended up in U.S. landfills in 2010, according to a study by the San Francisco-based nonprofit As You Sow, which noted that this country’s recycling rates lag far behind those of European nations such as Denmark and Belgium. And that’s not to mention some 64 billion pounds of perfectly good food that could be used to feed countless hungry families, rather than being relegated to the trash. Does it seem like there’s something slightly insane about our dumping upwards of $100 billion dollars in resources into the landfill annually and paying waste-hauling companies nearly another $50 billion to cart it away and bury it for us?
So, yes, I would say the long-term solution lies in our ability to undertake a massive education campaign designed to engender a change in society’s attitude toward waste in general, along with a commitment on the part of manufacturers to make sure packaging has a higher and better “calling” than one-time use. It will mean convincing households to make a voluntary and continual “collective” effort to have all all those used cell phones in drawers and old computers in the closets recycled in order to extract the precious metals and materials they contain, as well as persuading restaurants and retailers to donate any unsold food that’s still edible, rather than disposing of it in the Dumpster.
When I was growing up, I remember my mom would not let us get up from the table until we had cleaned our plates, because there were “starving children in Africa.” Now, due to a basic lack of respect for our planet and its people, we not only have massive starvation in parts of Africa, but numerous people going hungry right here in the United States. We’re also allowing our country, and much of the world, to become increasingly buried in waste products that, with a little respect and discipline on our parts, could just as easily be treated as the precious resources they really are.
So how can we best go about changing that mindset – that is, without having to offer people incentives to do what they should be doing? One of the proven ways to get any movement underway is to have the right mantra – and perhaps the one to motivate this crusade should simply be “Zero Now! – by which we not only mean zero waste, but zero emissions, zero toxicity, and zero impact.
And while these might sound like revolutionary concepts, they’re really just reinterpretations of a very old but still very applicable adage: “Waste not, want not.”