When it comes to environmental sciences and policy, waste is a huge issue. We keep producing and we have no idea where to put it all. From the birth of the environmental movement, the three “R”s of reduce, reuse and recycle have been drilled into our minds. The amount of waste diverted to recycling has increased tremendously, even within the last decade; however, given that the New York Times could publish an article this week entitled “Recycling Helps, but It’s Not All You Can Do for the Environment,” without discarding it as immediately too obvious, maybe it’s time to re-examine our relationship with waste.
Why do we care about waste? Well, mostly because it can either go into the natural environment as pollution or we can dump it into landfills, which bring with them their own set of issues. As long as we keep living, we’ll be producing some sort of waste. It is unavoidable; though sadly, overall the problems raised by waste have been generally avoided instead of addressed head on.
There are three main methods environmentalists have attempted to use to deal with waste: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Recycling has become much more recognizable as a mechanism of conservation than either reduce or reuse. It receives the most attention, the most gear (those snazzy blue or green buckets), and the most criticism.
One frequently lobbed criticism is recycling cost issue. While recycling may not always be the most straight-up cost-effective waste solution in many cases, these criticisms fail to take into account the externalities associated with landfills, such as land use and leaching. These externalities, not the cost of waste disposal or processing, are the very issues that environmentalists hope that recycling addresses. Of course cost efficiency is important, but when considering the effectiveness of recycling, the end goal must not be confused.
But that’s not what the New York Times article wanted to talk about and that isn’t what got me going on this subject. The NYT article explored the idea that when people recycle, they think they’ve done their part for the environment and that that’s all they need to do. Social science researchers have found evidence on both sides of the argument, with some suggesting that recycling triggers a phenomenon called “single action bias” where by completing a single action, the actor thinks they’ve done their part. Other researchers, though, suggest that recycling is but one in a series of actions that people concerned about the environment engage in.
More research on this subject would be useful in really teasing apart the relationship between recycling and environmental action, but there’s one thing I know: given the global scale of many of the environmental issues facing us today, if people do something that makes them feel like they’re making a real difference, then that’s awesome. Environmental scientists and policymakers have long discussed how to battle the feeling of being overwhelmed by the scale of environmental problems. People self-report feeling hopeless sometimes to make a real change. If recycling that create that feeling of agency, then that’s a great place to build from.
That feeling shouldn’t be discounted or dismissed. In the article, for example, recycling was dismissed as only diverting 1/3 of waste from the landfill. That 1/3 is up from 1/10 only a decade ago! That’s a huge increase! And a decrease of 1/3 is absolutely nothing to sneeze at. That can significantly extend the life of a landfill, allowing us to use the same space for much longer before it gets all filled up.
There are, of course, legitimate concerns with this framing of environmentalism. For starters, it maintains the environmental movement in the United States as a predominantly middle class and white movement. The “environmentally conscious” actions of a middle class person are just day to day life for those in other economic brackets. After all, it’s hard to reduce when you already only buy the minimum, and reusing isn’t as exulted when it’s borne from necessity. Additionally, recycling only perpetuates a commercial view of environmentalism – if you’re recycling, you’re still buying, something that can’t be said for either reduce or reuse. Creating a more inclusive environmentalism is absolutely crucial.
With those things in mind, though, continue on reducing, reusing, and yes, even recycling. How do you engage with the three “R”s in your day-to-day life? Share tips in the comments!