Modern Day Waste: Solutions for Repurposing, Recycling and Profiting
How do we dispose of toxic waste, plastic packaging, electronics, and other discards of modern society? Where does it all go?
Let’s talk about recycling. The idea is certainly not new, in that for millennia humans have maintained and re-used tools and resources as part of an essential economy based on what is available, what is the need, and what is the best way to meet that need without waste. The behavior was reality; there was no choice. But as we multiplied and responded with innovation and technology, we discovered that we could make more than ever before, into goods and necessary services; we could build and earn our way beyond scarcity to a new standard of making, consuming, and living that today is both system and expectation of surplus, even excess.
Waste and its management are the new challenges of this day. How do we dispose of toxic tailings and spoils, plastic containers and packaging, discarded automobiles, old refrigerators, outmoded televisions, superseded computers, or out-of-fashion smart phones? Where does it all go? Into dumps where we attempt to cover and contain its seepage and deterioration; into the groundwater and watershed and ocean where it does invisible damage to the land and sea and all that lives in it or depends upon it.
Take that to scale and you have poisoned aquifers with water unfit to drink, lakes and streams hostile to native species, an ocean surface pocked with vast clusters of floating debris, and a water column corrupted, a solution of poisons we cannot see, taste, or feel until we can through algal blooms, dead fish, and sick people.
We recycle what, and how much of this waste? We collect aluminum cans, some glass, paper, and cardboard and a small percentage of the plastic discard, and turn them into similar products for similar uses. We feel good about this. Not everyone does it.
We also have some bright new ideas. For example, we recycle discarded ocean plastic into clothing and soap bottles and surfaces for parking lots; we recycle fishnet and line into carpet tiles, skateboards, and doormats; but when you really consider what percentage of everything we produce and then recycle to be produced again, it must add up to a pittance.
How do we turn bad trash into good cash?
Here are some thoughts:
First, what if we refrain from creating the trash at all, by conserving or using less of the things that enable its making? Use less plastic by not using plastic bags, rejecting plastic packaging, and substituting reusable containers for just one example. These small individual protests, and many more such similar actions, are easily done now by any of us and our families at home.
Second, what if we recycle more, by insisting that all plastics be recycled, that all engine oil and frying fat be recycled, that all manufactured items be made of recyclable products or, if not, carry a penalty deposit for the true cost of their safe disposal? What if we held corporations responsible for their industrial waste, enforced, not diluted or contradicted regulations justified by the right of the public to be protected from such pre-meditated impacts on human health? Some of these have been tried and successful, until they are subverted by the narrowest interest that asserts mean shareholder return over basic human rights. These, too, are achievable through political will.
Finally, what if we built a new economy on a recycling ethic, a price or tax structure built on the inherent value of re-use, the concept that an item is more valuable if it can be used longer or it can be re-used for a process and production that exploits and affirms its economic basis again and again in a cycle of maximum utility and return? What if it costs more, not less, to purchase a non-recyclable item built from a waste-based process? This would not be a new principle on Earth; it too is achievable as the revival of a principled behavior that attacks waste at its irresponsible, anti-social core.
Without substantive recycling, in these ways or others, we perpetuate waste. Waste is excess. Excess is pollution. Pollution dirties our air, corrupts our land, fouls our water, poisons our ocean, and diminishes our future.
PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory and is author of “The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society.” He is also the host of World Ocean Radio, a weekly podcast addressing ocean issues, upon which this blog is inspired.