Come Talk Trash With Us

Image by flickr user <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/threadedthoughts/3237309854/in/set-72157612982791419/">ThreadedThoughts</a> used under a Creative Commons license

Fight disinformation: Sign up for the free Mother Jones Daily newsletter and follow the news that matters.

After last week’s organic food online forum, we’re ready for the next course. This week’s topic: recycling and waste. The modern recycling movement got its start alongside the first Earth Day, nearly 40 years ago this week. Since then, recycling’s gone mainstream: Americans now recycle and compost a third of their trash, up from just 6 percent in 1970. Yet, as detailed in the current issue of Mother Jones, we’re generating more waste than ever before. In just 5 minutes, we use another 1,060,000 aluminum cans, 2 million plastic bottles, and 15 million sheets of paper. We’re still drowning in plastic, New York recycles only a fifth of its garbage, and trash haulers still find landfill more profitable than recycling. Then consider that municipal solid waste—that’s the stuff that fills our home garbage cans and office paper bins—is just 2.5 percent of our total “Gross National Trash” output. While we’ve been agonizing over whether our plastic yogurt lids can be recycled, have we been missing the big picture? Is recycling giving us a false sense that we’re solving our waste problem?

We put that question to four experts: Elizabeth Royte, Eric Lombardi, Annie Leonard, and Susan Strasser. Check out some highlights from their answers below the jump. Or head on over to our recycling online forum, which kicks off today. For the rest of this week, our panelists will be checking in to respond to readers, discuss and debate the future of recycling and waste, and perhaps even solve the mystery of the yogurt lid.

Elizabeth Royte is the author of Bottlemania: How Water Went On Sale and Why We Bought It and Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash. Her article on zero-waste zealots appears in the current issue of Mother Jones.

Yes, I think that people feel they’re doing their part for the environment by putting recyclables into containers at the curb or bringing them to a drop-off center (and they are helping the earth). But that feeling also allows some to continue business as usual—to consume and waste ever more stuff: “I recycle those single-use plastic bottles, so it’s okay to keep buying them.” 

 

Eric Lombardi is the executive director of Eco-Cycle, one of the nation’s largest nonprofit recyclers. He is a cofounder of the GrassRoots Recycling Network and the Zero Waste International Alliance.

In the bigger picture, recycling is like a gateway drug in that it is the first environmental action of every good Republican. I think the recycling stage is a very large one, and those of us who work on it have unlimited opportunities to create stories, presentations, and visions about all sorts of important environmental issues, including “game-changing ideas” like zero waste, zero carbon, and zero population growth.

 

Annie Leonard is an environmental researcher and campaigner. She is also the author and host of The Story of Stuff, an animated online exposé of the hidden costs of consumption.

There is a reason that recycling comes last in the oft-repeated mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” That is where it should be: a last resort. I say that recycling is the opiate of the masses. It makes us feel good, like we’ve done our part.

 

Susan Strasser is a professor of history at the University of Delaware and the author of Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash. She has been praised by The New Yorker for “retrieving what history discards: the taken-for-granted minutiae of everyday life.”

Americans have sorted trash for recycling for centuries. These practices were forgotten during the mid-twentieth century, and in recent years, sorting trash for recycling has become a symbol of care about the environment. [I]t reminds us of the threads that bind our individual households to the planet and the activities of our daily lives to its future.

 

LET’S TALK ABOUT OPTIMISM FOR A CHANGE

Democracy and journalism are in crisis mode—and have been for a while. So how about doing something different?

Mother Jones did. We just merged with the Center for Investigative Reporting, bringing the radio show Reveal, the documentary film team CIR Studios, and Mother Jones together as one bigger, bolder investigative journalism nonprofit.

And this is the first time we’re asking you to support the new organization we’re building. In “Less Dreading, More Doing,” we lay it all out for you: why we merged, how we’re stronger together, why we’re optimistic about the work ahead, and why we need to raise the First $500,000 in online donations by June 22.

It won’t be easy. There are many exciting new things to share with you, but spoiler: Wiggle room in our budget is not among them. We can’t afford missing these goals. We need this to be a big one. Falling flat would be utterly devastating right now.

A First $500,000 donation of $500, $50, or $5 would mean the world to us—a signal that you believe in the power of independent investigative reporting like we do. And whether you can pitch in or not, we have a free Strengthen Journalism sticker for you so you can help us spread the word and make the most of this huge moment.

payment methods

LET’S TALK ABOUT OPTIMISM FOR A CHANGE

Democracy and journalism are in crisis mode—and have been for a while. So how about doing something different?

Mother Jones did. We just merged with the Center for Investigative Reporting, bringing the radio show Reveal, the documentary film team CIR Studios, and Mother Jones together as one bigger, bolder investigative journalism nonprofit.

And this is the first time we’re asking you to support the new organization we’re building. In “Less Dreading, More Doing,” we lay it all out for you: why we merged, how we’re stronger together, why we’re optimistic about the work ahead, and why we need to raise the First $500,000 in online donations by June 22.

It won’t be easy. There are many exciting new things to share with you, but spoiler: Wiggle room in our budget is not among them. We can’t afford missing these goals. We need this to be a big one. Falling flat would be utterly devastating right now.

A First $500,000 donation of $500, $50, or $5 would mean the world to us—a signal that you believe in the power of independent investigative reporting like we do. And whether you can pitch in or not, we have a free Strengthen Journalism sticker for you so you can help us spread the word and make the most of this huge moment.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate