Friday, January 17, 2014

The Recycling Conspiracy

In a downpour last Saturday, my Jeep was one of nearly 900 personal vehicles snaking through the County Stadium parking lot in my long-adopted home of Durham, North Carolina.

Collectively, souls driving these vehicles dropped off 14 tons of electronics and another 36,000 pounds of paper.  It is one of several events held each year to make it convenient for residents to recycle e-waste, items not accepted curbside for bi-weekly pick-up nor in garbage disposal.

That’s an average of 32 tons per vehicle, obviously considerably less in my two-door Rubicon.   I had begun assembling items to take for collection a few months earlier and still forgot several items.

In a community northwest of Durham, the waste is stripped down and each element, including precious metals recovered, are returned to manufacturers to be made into more products of this type.

If we lived in a world with “full-cost” accounting the components of every product we buy including food would go full circle like this.  Then there would be zero waste and the built in financial incentives would result in zero litter, for that matter.

This would be both because the cost of waste, litter removal and recycling would be built into the marketplace and because the value and cost would be built into the product instead of shifted onto the general public, more specifically taxpayers.

Today in the U.S., only 27% of e-waste (anything that plugs in or runs on batteries or a motor) is being recycled, 19% if you go by items vs. tonnage.  This includes 40% of computers, 33% of monitors and copy devices and only 17% of televisions and mobile devices.

In other terms, Americans generate 4.41 tons of e-waste each year and of this only 850,000 tons or one quarter is being recycled.  The rest ends up in landfills or incinerators rather than being captured and reused by the marketplace.

The good news is that we are recycling nearly two and a half times as much as we were a dozen years ago but as of 2012 on average, each American household was spending $1,312 on new electronics annually, accumulating an average then of 24 distinct products.

Different than other appliances, the the vast proportion of the environmental impact from electronics is in their production, not their use.   Using one ingredient – aluminum - as an example, recycling reduces that impact by 90%.

On top of that, reuse compared to disposal, using computers as an example, creates 296 jobs for every 10,000 tons disposed each year.

Cost is often given as the reason these items can’t just be placed in curbside, single-stream recycling.  The prohibitive cost is apparently separating them from other recyclables.

You would think that curbside administrators would be working furiously to resolve this just as they have had to do with every other recyclable item, but there is more than bureaucratic inertia slowing that process.

You probably have to be my age to remember The John Birch Society, but the ultra-conservative group is still around.  They made everything a Communist conspiracy beginning in 1958, when I was ten years old.

Before it became popular within the Republican Party, this society sought to purge moderate and liberal Republicans from that political party, even labeling moderate Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower a tool of Communists.

The group lost influence, credibility and membership after the 1970s but it still exists and its ideology is promoted by other groups less tainted or rebranded.

About a year and a half ago, the Society’s bi-weekly publication The New American that curbside recycling is a conspiracy to undermine American values, this time by environmentalists.

It doesn’t take much to suspect the group’s finger-prints were on so-called regulatory reform legislation passed recently by North Carolina lawmakers, giving new life to landfills - mega-landfills – and surrendering public roadsides to billboard blight, eroding the state’s brand as “Beauty Amplified.”

When I relocated to Durham in 1989, nationwide there were already 1,000 curbside recycling programs.  Within two years there were 4,000 and now there are more than 10,000 in addition to tens of thousands of recycling centers.

But curbside recycling began in 1874 in Baltimore, Maryland, nearly two decades before the founding of The Sierra Club, a connection ripe for conspiracists I suppose.

Trash became a national policy issue for Congress in 1965, the year after the all-aluminum can was introduced and four decades after landfilling became popular, ironically promoted as a way to reclaim wetlands.

Obviously conspiracists would see linkage, although municipal dumps date to 500 B.C.

Recycling, beginning with paper, dates at least to the first century of 1000 A.D..  Patriots and American Revolutionary War soldiers were big recyclers.  Recycling peddlers in the 1840s were among America’s earliest entrepreneurs.

The Salvation Army made recycling philanthropic in 1865 and materials recovery became a municipal function in New York City in 1897, at the dawn of the Progressive Era when recycling and reuse programs shot up, ah, definitely a conspiracy then!

Recycling became a patriotic duty in America during the two World Wars and there you have it, recycling comes full circle as a Communist conspiracy.

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