On Being Someone Who Recycles.

NOTE: This post was migrated on 8/8/21 from my substack after getting all of my blog moved to a secure host. If you are confused about why I wrote on substack for awhile, get your primer about my site being hacked and the ensuing chaos HERE.

P.S. If this showed up in your RSS feed reader can you email me (misszootATgmail.com) and let me know? I’m not sure how moving this stuff over and back-dating it effects things like my RSS feed.

There’s this new trend lately to…well…kinda mock people who recycle. Or to scoff at the industry in general for pulling focus or for placating people into not caring about systemic approaches to the climate crisis. I’ve encountered it several times recently. It is usually done from two different approaches.

1) The “Most of our climate problem is caused by 100 people” argument against any sort of personal action we might take as individuals. This is the most common approach after Elizabeth Warren used a variation of that argument (“70% of carbon emissions come from 3 industries”) during a town hall. This approach is often used when anyone discusses anything on the “personal responsibility” level of environmental protection. I love this Sierra Club essay by Jason Mark that pushes back against this approach. He says, “Apparently, we’ve traded lifestyle scolding for now being scolded if you mention the importance of personal lifestyle.”

2) The “It really isn’t much of a net positive in terms of resources and/or energy cost” argument. This is where someone will take time to explain that the energy used to collect and clean the recycling counterbalance the energy saved from new production. Or maybe they’ll argue resource costs or shipping costs. Either way, they tend to say “there’s no point” in terms of a end-result cost/benefit analysis. This podcast responds to this approach beautifully and points out that with glass and aluminum? Recycling most definitely is the right move. With paper? It’s still a pretty good move. The debatable area is plastics, but the conclusion is not “Don’t Recycle” – the conclusion is “use less” or “use something else.”

The thing about both of these approaches to shaming people who prioritize recycling, is that they don’t acknowledge what simply “being someone who recycles” does to a person’s mindset about the environment and about issues around climate change.

Now…I get the reflex. It can be very frustrating to hear the world focusing on small individual gestures like banning strays or going vegetarian when the problem is unregulated industries across the globe. If you watched that clip of Elizabeth Warren that I link above, her frustration is PALPABLE. (If you feel this frustration in your bones, might I suggest you listen to this episode of Reply All when one of the hosts basically writes an anthem about his frustration/anger around the climate issue.)

BUT. Don’t poo-poo someone else because they like small personal actions.

When my family finally bought a house before our second child was born, I had no concept of how much trash we produced a week because we threw it in our apartment complex dumpster. If the dumpster got really full, I didn’t consider my contribution at all…I just considered everyone else’s. After my child was born and we were in a house with one trash bin, I became very aware of how much our garbage increased with the addition of diapers. WE WERE FILLING UP OUR BIN BEFORE TRASH DAY. We found ourselves very aware of how much garbage we were producing. Which…I think…is one of the best things that could have happened to us in terms of waking us up to environmental issues.

So…we decided to start trying to recycle (there was no curbside here at the time) so we wouldn’t have to pay for a second garbage bin. Now, first of all: we would have never done this in an apartment where we didn’t realize how much trash we had made every week. I think about that a lot, about how many people might recycle more if they had to look at how much trash their household produced every week.

Once we started recycling, we started thinking about everything around our waste production. We are no where near any sort of “zero waste” existence by any means. But…we think about it all way more than we would if we didn’t recycle. We try to buy drinks in cans instead of plastic because recycling aluminum is very cost effective in terms of money and resources. We try to avoid things with excess packaging. We feel guilty about throwing any recyclables in the garbage, so if there’s no obvious recycle bins, we bring our recycling home. We buy glass storage containers instead of plastic. We use cloth shopping bags. Four of the five of us are vegetarian. There are just so many little ways our mindsets shifted around waste and the environment, as a family who recycles.

Does that mean we’re going to make an impact when these 90 companies are responsible for most of the climate crisis? No. But does it mean we’re more likely to read and listen to information about the climate crisis because we feel like we are an active part of the team trying to solve the problem? Yes.

Recycling waste is not just about the act of putting a can in a bin. It’s how it changes your mindset in dozens of other small ways to make you more involved in and invested in the problem. You can’t measure this on a resource cost chart or with some sort of use-cycle diagram. But, it’s a very real and positive effect of being someone who recycles.

Whenever anyone tries to push back or scoff at me for taking recycling so seriously…this is the argument I tend to rely on the most: Being someone who cares about recycling means I’m at least regularly thinking about the environment. I’m more likely to vote for politicians who care about the climate crisis and I’m more likely to read scholarly articles about resource limitations and change my behavior accordingly and I’m more likely to consider industry response to climate when I’m deciding how and where to spend my dollars. All of these things are unmeasurable positives that I refuse to discount just because someone thinks personal responsibility in a global crisis is a waste of…well…energy.

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