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Lies, Damned Lies, and Recycling

Modern recycling was designed to deflect responsibility from the largest producers of waste

Have you heard the news? Recycling is dead—or close to it. China no longer wants our trash and its neighbors are following suit, shedding the region’s undesirable role as a dumping ground for the Global North. This reversal was several years in the making, but after decades of offshoring our low-quality recyclables and generally neglecting our domestic waste infrastructure, American towns and cities have proved woefully ill-equipped to handle the logjam of unwanted material. As municipal waste commissioners and their private industry counterparts scramble to find alternatives, many of the items collected in blue and green bins are being discreetly rerouted into landfills and incinerators, extinguishing any last pretense that recycling can alleviate our ballooning waste footprint.

American recycling has died several times before, the result of falling commodity prices, low participation rates, or the entry or exit of a major scrap buyer. But China’s latest effective ban—dubbed the “National Sword,” it cuts imports on more than two dozen types of scrap material through severe anti-contamination measures—comes at a peculiar moment for the U.S. political economy. Devastating images of plastic marine pollution have reawakened public anger over the dangers of unregulated production, prompting several states to implement bans on single-use items such as straws, bags, and foam containers. At the same time, consumers flock towards on-demand services from the likes of Amazon and Uber Eats that churn out epic rivers of waste. As our consumer overlords deploy armies of robots and drivers to deliver the world to our doorsteps, they continue to avoid widespread scrutiny over the wastelands of packaging that lie in their imperial wakes.

It’s not yet clear how this moral friction might resolve into political action. Amid the fray of proposed federal legislation are several worthy and overdue measures—around “producer pays” (or “cradle-to-grave”) laws and single-use packaging bans—as well as one old Trojan horse that certainly represents the worst case scenario. Last month, on America Recycles Day, Representatives Tony Cárdenas (D-CA) and Larry Bucshon (R-IN) unveiled the RECOVER Act, a bill written by the plastics industry that would invest up to $500 million towards “modernizing” America’s recycling infrastructure. The announcement included vague allusions to “public-private partnerships and a new grants program” that would “clean up our nation’s environment” and “make an impact on sustainability from coast to coast.”

As our consumer overlords deploy armies of robots and drivers to deliver the world to our doorsteps, they continue to avoid widespread scrutiny over the wastelands of packaging that lie in their imperial wakes.

Bailing out the recycling industry may sound like a benign proposal. The funds might even be a wise infusion at such a precarious moment for scrap buyers, processors, and sellers. But the hazy aspirations of the RECOVER Act are just the latest cover in a long-running deceit that for more than half a century has deflected responsibility from the companies who profit from pollution while ensuring our broader waste problem goes unaddressed. If a targeted stimulus for recycling—that dilapidated supply chain that impacts at best a fraction of our collective waste footprint—is the only measure that results from this latest upheaval, it may be worse than no action at all, for it will perpetuate the illusion of progress.

Modern recycling as we know it—the byzantine system of color-coded bins and asterisk-ridden instruction sheets about what is or isn’t “recyclable”—was conceived in a boardroom. The anti-litter campaigns of the 1950s, championed under the slogan of “Keep America Beautiful,” were funded by the producers of that litter, who sought to position recycling as a viable alternative to the sustainable packaging laws that had percolated in nearly two dozen states. In primetime commercials over the decades, American audiences met characters like Susan Spotless and “The Crying Indian” (played by Italian-American actor Espera Oscar de Corti) who urged consumers to lead the charge against debris: “People start pollution. People can stop it.”

Keep America Beautiful flaunted a fairy tale logic that demanded little from anyone. Landscapes would be rendered pristine as long as responsible citizens placed their garbage in the proper receptacle. Any unwanted items could be magically whisked away somewhere distant and unseen. In this fantasy world, polluted highways and parks were caused not by giant consumer brands who exclusively sold their goods in disposable packaging, or by raw material producers whose factories leaked toxic byproducts into rivers and lakes; the blame for environmental pollution was placed on the mythical hordes of careless individuals—“litterbugs”—who tossed food wrappers out of their car windows.

In one brazen swoop, the petrochemical industry disowned the blight of their products while sustaining highly profitable throwaway habits. Given how deeply this individualist message penetrated the national psyche, how thoroughly it deferred the prospect of producer-responsibility legislation for decades to come, Keep America Beautiful must rank as one of the most devastatingly effective PR campaigns of all time. And it was a tactic that American industry soon exported to the rest of the world.

A 1970 ad published in Life magazine. | Flickr

It’s heartening to know not every country was as susceptible to the charms of disposability. In his newly released history of recycling for MIT Press, environmental scholar Finn Arne Jørgensen describes his home country’s initial resistance to single-use bottles, an answer to a problem that didn’t really exist, given the high reusability of glass:

While in the United States, “no deposit, no return” bottles were marketed as the pinnacle of convenience, Norwegian consumers were initially frustrated by them. What were they to do with them if they couldn’t return them to the store? It could be hard to find a trash can when you were out on the move, and besides it felt wrong to not take it back to the store. This is not to say that Norwegians didn’t embrace consumerism from the 1960s onward . . . but there were still reservations about one-way bottles as a breach of a social and economic contract.

Reservations are the least a government could have before bowing to the market and unleashing a waste-bomb on their lands and people. Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that European nations were among the first to begin implementing extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws that tie collection costs back to manufacturers and incentivize leaner, more sustainable packaging. Germany’s landmark 1991 ordinance established the “take-back” model, in which suppliers pay full freight for the recovery of goods they deliver to market and then reuse or recycle those residual materials into future production. The legislation halted—at least temporarily—the growth of Germany’s packaging waste, even as its consumer economy continued to expand, dispelling the fallacy of disposability as a prerequisite to economic growth.

Meanwhile, America barreled ahead in prioritizing convenience at the cost of everything else. Beginning in the 1960s, waves of consolidation centralized waste disposal in the hands of a few major corporations, including Allied Waste and Waste Management. As these publicly-traded, for-profit entities absorbed community recycling centers and independent collectors, their CEOs and boards of directors effectively became America’s unelected waste commissioners, ultimately lumping our recycling processes into existing throwaway infrastructures.

In one brazen swoop, the petrochemical industry disowned the blight of their products while sustaining highly profitable throwaway habits.

American recycling offers a textbook example of the perils of privatization. The meager revenues generated from selling scrap material have ensured that recycling remains an afterthought for the modern waste corporation, which is otherwise preoccupied with the higher margins of its core landfill business. Rather than unleashing new solutions, the profit motive in waste has primarily sparked cost-saving synergies that masquerade as progress. Home-grown tactics like curbside pickup and single-stream recycling boost collection volumes—which is how these companies charge their services to municipalities—while depressing actual recycling rates, since those mega-batches of scrap material are often highly contaminated.

In the wake of China’s recent ban on our waste, the green facade around recycling is finally starting to fade. Widespread news coverage has exposed the dubious loopholes and definitions that businesses and politicians use to feign sustainability. As far back as the 1990s, America has been shipping our scrap material to overseas buyers, going through the motions of “recycling” even as many items were dumped into wastelands or strewn along coastlines at their final destination. Rather than petition Big Waste donors-turned-contractors to invest in the costly expense of new recovery plants, centrist politicians promote waste-to-energy incinerators as an eco-friendly, recycling-adjacent alternative to landfills, despite concerns about their toxic exhaust or the fact that they’re frequently placed near marginalized communities.

Recycling’s untenable mess of half-measures and contradictory interests are most self-evident in attempts at what the RECOVER Act would call “consumer education.” The shared dumpster outside my apartment complex features a 5×5 placard with Dos and Don’ts for recycling paper, cardboard, glass, metal, and plastic. Cut and flatten cardboard boxes into 3’x3’ pieces. Rinse and dry plastic containers of any food residue. Separate clean, dry paper from any others that might be wet, waxed, or soiled. Remove plastic liners from milk carton packaging. And this is just a partial sampling. Recently, our landlord taped up a new addendum: glass bottles and plastic bags are no longer accepted; even one misplaced item could ruin the entire batch of recyclables. The situation creates an occasion for solidarity with my fellow tenants, any time we pass each other with our hulking trash bags and smile at the impenetrable wall of instructions. It’s difficult to imagine anyone, let alone everyone, having the time or patience to perform such a tedious ritual.

The most damning legacy of Keep America Beautiful is not its evasion of corporate responsibility, or its sexist and racist mascots, but the way in which its message has curbed our ability to imagine alternative solutions to dealing with our waste. What was originally designed as a measure of last resort in the environmentalist credo—Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.—became the only realm of possible action. A white actor in redface shed a tear, and our problem was reduced to a fairy tale.

Mainstream pundits who view recycling as little more than a market to be recalibrated are hawking the same wrong-headed narrative. To the wonky technocrat, the future of recycling is another silicon-powered arms race: advanced recycling plants that resemble Amazon distribution centers; chirping orchestras of scanners, lasers, magnets, optical sensors, and AI robots that sort through thousands of items and material variants at light-speed. State-of-the-art recycling may be a poster-child for the neoliberal mindset, overcomplicating a problem in service of protecting existing industries and technologies. Rather than pursue the fool’s errand of perpetually rejiggering our recycling apparatus to fit the erratic packaging whims of consumer companies, how much easier would it be to solve this problem upstream, through firm legislation that standardizes the material byproducts that enter our waste streams to begin with?

With the prospect of more stringent, single-use bans on the horizon—led by the European Union, who has committed to sweeping plastic measures by 2021, and followed closely by North America and Asia—some global consumer brands are gesturing towards more holistic actions. A few of these initiatives are craven PR stunts, like limited-edition shoes and bottles made from recovered ocean plastic. Other projects mime genuine solutions, minus the urgency or commitment needed to actualize new ways of doing business. Maybe the most ambitious effort so far has been a beta program called Loop, a waste-free delivery service that aims to revive the lapsed “milk man” model for recurring household purchases. If the service takes off, it could usher a meaningful change in consumer habits—though historically these sustainability experiments are the equivalent of exploratory committees, a vehicle for delaying actions or decisions while claiming to catalyze them.

The most damning legacy of Keep America Beautiful is the way in which its message has curbed our ability to imagine alternative solutions to dealing with our waste.

More than any other resource, it is time we are wasting most belligerently. Half a century after American industry unleashed disposability on the planet, we’ve nearly passed the point of no return. Scarcity mindsets are anathema to the scores of rapidly industrializing countries who are following the Western playbook. Their waste footprints are expected to double (if not triple) by 2050, as global waste generation swells another 70 percent during that same time period. If we’re lucky, a fraction of this refuse will be diverted from landfills and incinerators. In her clear-eyed diagnosis of our looming epidemic, environmental scientist Dr. Max Liboiron compares recycling to “a BandAid on gangrene,” and our pretense of disposability a scorched-earth ideology that depends on “colonizer access to land.” Every faux-crisis about the death of recycling—all of which are really just news reports about the latest fluctuations in the global scrap market—should account for the fact that the system has been bankrupt from the beginning.

The best we can hope for recycling might be its ability to keep this modern failure top-of-mind. By pausing to consider the unseen costs of our rampant consumerism, we momentarily experience what Jørgensen calls “waste-mindedness,” which can facilitate our ability to slow down, question the virtues of growth, and recognize that no object is ever truly disposable. This is not meant to be a therapeutic or meditative sensation, but a rude awakening—one that journalist John Tierney tried to repress in his infamous 1996 polemic against recycling. His piece, entitled “Recycling Is Garbage,” argued there is no waste problem. Landfills are perfectly safe, with their double-layered clay and plastic lining. The world isn’t running out of raw materials or available dumping grounds anytime soon. His conclusion, which elicited a record amount of hate mail at the New York Times Magazine, followed that:

Recycling does sometimes makes sense—for some materials in some places at some times. But the simplest and cheapest option is usually to bury garbage in an environmentally safe landfill. And since there’s no shortage of landfill space (the crisis of 1987 was a false alarm), there’s no reason to make recycling a legal or moral imperative. Mandatory recycling programs aren’t good for posterity. They offer mainly short-term benefits to a few groups—politicians, public relations consultants, environmental organizations, waste-handling corporations—while diverting money from genuine social and environmental problems. Recycling may be the most wasteful activity in modern America: a waste of time and money, a waste of human and natural resources.

Tierney’s critique persuasively calls out the hypocrisy in how recycling has been sold to the public, the ways the liberal conscience falls prey to feel-good distractions, which are at best ineffectual and at worst counterproductive, even harmful. But then he sprints away from the problem, taking comfort in another false savior: the landfill. The article is a stunning time capsule of “end of history” optimism, channelled through a defense of modern garbage systems. More horrifying than Tierney’s hasty back-of-the-envelope calculations, or his free-market purity tests, is the utter lack of uncertainty about such a vast and unwieldy system. His voice channels the arrogance of some Malthusian scholar, brimming with blind faith about humanity’s ability to conjure ever-more clever ways of burying our waste out of sight and out of mind.

Certainly there are objects—now “garbage”—which humanity might have been better off not burying, let alone creating in the first place. Microplastics that have resurfaced in our food and drinking water. Nuclear waste and its half-life of thousands, millions, even billions of years. “Forever chemicals” that course through the blood streams of 99 percent of the U.S. population. Once inanimate materials are considered disposable, the mental leap to other things—animals, natural landscapes, entire communities of people—is not as far as we’d hope. More perilous than recycling’s ability to deflect responsibility is the way it seems to inflate our conception of what humanity can do, and undo—our potential to recover and defuse any harmful creations, to break things and put them back together, ad infinitum. If only.