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17 April 2012

Community Recycling Forum

I have been invited to take part in a Community Recycling Forum today as part of our campus Environmental Science Club's EarthFest 2012. (For you locals, it's at 6:00 PM in A&S Auditorium.) In the way of prep, I'm working through some answers to the pre-provided questions. Here are some meandering thoughts.

1. Why should people recycle?
Recycling is of course good for the natural environment, but it is also better for the social environment as well.
2. Isn’t it more efficient to just throw our waste in the trash? 

No, it is not. It is more efficient for us to reduce our consumption overall and to reuse what we do consume whenever possible. Compared to discarding our waste, though, recycling typically requires far less in the way of energy and resources than the initial production process. Recycling is efficient, both in the material sense but, importantly, in the economic sense as well.
3. Doesn’t it cost money to recycle? Who pays for it?
Another important questions would be, "Who pays for it if we don't recycle?" In a very broad sense, we will all eventually pay, but in the short run, we all don't pay the same price. Economists have given us a term for this. They call it externality. Basically, what it means is that not all of the costs of our consumption are included in the direct prices that we pay for them; some of the costs are externalized onto others. On the local level, we can think about the health effects that are disproportionately born by the socially marginalized. Being black or poor in the United States, for example, means that you're more likely to live in a neighborhood with environmental toxins from industrial processes. On the global scale, we can think about how certain regions or countries bear disproportionate environmental costs. A good example right now comes from China. We've heard a lot of claims about workers' conditions at Foxconn, the company that makes Apple products, but even more alarming is the rare earth mining industry. Rare earth elements are not so much rare as they are difficult to extract from the ground. That extraction process involves the use of a lot of horrific chemicals to leach the useful stuff out of the useless stuff. (See more here.) Proper precautions in the extraction process can be really expensive, but some governments, like China, are either turning a blind eye to environmental abuses or deregulating them all together. The workers in these industries and the people who live around the mines will feel the long term effects. The costs are externalized to the globally powerless so that we can have cheap smartphones, computers, and televisions that require these rare earth elements. Moreover, when we throw away our obsolete devices, they often end up in undeveloped countries in the Global South where people encounter a whole host of health issues because of toxic exposure. If we recycled more of our electronics in this country, being among the largest consumers of electronic products, we would alleviate both the high demand for these elements and the supply of their subsequent waste. Recycling is not just about the environment; it's also about social justice.
4. Are recycled products worth anything?
Recycled products are usually of equal utility value to new products. Aluminum cans made from recycled cans, for example, are indistinguishable from cans made from newly refined ores. In fact, since there are costs savings to using recycled materials in most manufacturing processes, this equates to increased profit margins so one could make the argument that recycled products are worth more than non-recycled products.
5. Does recycling prevent environmental damage?
A different question is, "Does recycling prevent social injustice?" As noted above, I think the answer is yes in most cases.
6. What kind of people are most likely to recycle?
77% of people in the United States recycle paper, plastic or glass from their homes. 

Societies that have higher levels of socioeconomic equality tend to recycle more according to Kate Pickett, an epidemiologist at the University of York. The United States, compared to other advanced democracies, has pretty high levels of inequality. Picket sees reducing inequality as a good strategy toward addressing environmental issues broadly.

Women tend to dominate environmental justice movements. Since environmental movements are often framed in terms of "keeping the community's children safe," and since childcare is traditionally seen as women's work, men are discouraged from embracing such pro-environmental beliefs and practices. Moreover, men are more likely to work in industries that do not have the best environmental track records, like manufacturing and mining. Upton Sinclair famously said that "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it." Gender matters here, too.
7. Can choosing to recycle change my worldview?
I think we might have this backward. In order to engage in a behavior, people need to see that behavior as being consistent with their worldview. This means changing one's worldview first. Otherwise, people run into all kinds of cognitive dissonance and are likely to retrench in their preexisting worldview. Changing people's worldviews is difficult, though. I suspect that education (as an institution and not just a loose sense of giving people information) goes a long way in this process. Luckily, Georgia College is uniquely poised as the state's public liberal arts institution to forward such education.

Along these lines, we need to be careful with the language that we use in talking about environmental issues broadly. For example, the term "mother nature" is problematic. Mothers, and women in general, have not fared well historically in our patriarchal society. They are (or, at the very least, have been) systematically oppressed, exploited, and abused. It shouldn't be any surprise that we use this gendered term to talk about the natural environment, which we have oppressed, exploited, and abused. Words matter. They are powerful, and if we draw attention to our language, we can draw attention to environmental issues as well.
8. What are the biggest challenges to implementing a successful recycling program?
I think making recycling convenient (that is, not introducing new behavioral costs) is very important. If we can put recycling bins in their offices and provide free curbside pickup at their homes, we're going a long way to making it easier for people to recycle than to not. If we were really serious, we could internalize those previously externalized costs back into our practices. For example, we could charge people for their garbage collection per pound. This could create an enormous incentive to recycle as much as possible since it is free. Even better, people could be compensated for recycling. States with container-deposit legislation have been very successful in reducing litter and increasing recycling. One could imagine this being ramped up on a larger scale.
9. Should Georgia College have a recycling program?
Absolutely. We're catching up to the efforts of other campuses across the state and nation, but we're still behind in many ways. A recycling program can be part of a large educational program, designed to inform students, staff, and faculty about the broader socio-environmental problems that we face.
10. What can be done to encourage GC students, staff, and faculty to recycle?
Again, don't make it difficult, and if possible, incentivize it.


  1. There has been a problem with the 12oz. regular Coke cans. It seems that a lot of the regular 12oz. Coke cans are being rejected by the recycling machines in Waldbaums, King Kullen, Stop & Shop, PathMark, BJ's and WalMart. These are standard Coke cans that have the bar codes ending in '6' and sometime '1'. They have the white silouhette of a Coco-Cola bottle against the red background of the can. This is happening in New York State, and I've just emailed the Coco-Cola company about it. A lot of people are losing out on redemption money because of this quirk. Either Coke needs to change the bar codes on those cans or the retailers have to upgrade the scanners on their machines. In the meantime, I noticed that there are no problems with the Coke cans that have the Olympic symbols on them. is anyone out there having the same problem? Also, I come across a lot of C & C soda cans and plastic bottles, but I have no idea where to redeem them. I've tried all the major supermarkets, but their machines reject the items. I'd like to hear feedback from some of the folks on this forum. Email: Estelle.V.Edwards@gmail.com

  2. Estelle, this is a blog post and not a forum. I doubt you'll get much feedback here.

  3. I do appreciate your writing in this topic.

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