For many of us, recycling has been the way we started thinking about our impacts on the Earth.
Do-gooders at schools have for decades started recycling initiatives. Conscientious employees have convinced their co-workers to “go green.” And Tucson has had a sweeping municipal recycling program, with weekly pickup of all sorts of materials, since 2002. At my house, we pretty much fill our barrel weekly.
It’s given us a small sense of civic price — Tucson has one big blue barrel per household, and weekly pickup of all kind of recyclables. We do it right.
But as my colleague Tony Davis showed in a story last Sunday, those days are over. Tucson, like cities all over the country, is facing hard choices about what we can still recycle now that China has become choosy about what it accepts, making the market for many of our recyclables disappear. Tucson is facing $3.3 million in financial losses for the program, six times what was projected.
Actually, though, it’s not as bad a thing as it seems.
For now, the main recyclables that are costing us the most are glass and paper. If we were to stop recycling them altogether, that would be OK — paper, at least, is biodegradable, and we have plenty of room at the city-owned Los Reales Landfill.
The estimated remaining life of that landfill is 70 years, said Carlos De La Torre, director of environmental and general services for Tucson.
Also good: There’s still a market for plastic containers. My wife Patty and I, for example, like to drink large bottles of bubbly water, especially in the summer. Those plastic bottles still are worth something in the recycling market. And plastics are both a petroleum product — therefore a producer of greenhouse gases that warm the climate — and aren’t biodegradable, of course. Keeping them out of the landfill is good.
But here’s the bigger point that our national recycling problems are revealing: We still produce way, way, way too much junk. Copious piles of paper and packaging and containers smeared with food glop. You do it, I do it — pretty much all of us do, without even thinking much about it.
In a way, our recycling program has allowed us to ignore our wastefulness. We are producing mind-blowing amounts of junk — day after day, month after month, year after year. But recycling has been a balm to our conscience, as we eat our yogurt from single-serve containers.
In the United States, we produce about 4 pounds per person per day. What that adds up to in Tucson is about 200,000 tons of waste sent to Los Reales per year, De La Torre said. We are sending about 38,000 tons to the recycling center.
And of that recycling, about 25 percent of it ends up being garbage after all — contaminated, or not recyclable in the first place. So overall, we’re recycling about 14 percent of the waste we’re producing.
That 29,000 tons per year of recycling counts for something, sure. But wouldn’t it be better if we simply didn’t produce that tonnage at all?
It’s possible. There are plenty of people around the Tucson area who actually work at this and can show us the way. They compost food scraps, they buy in bulk, they get by on one vehicle — that sort of thing. I’m not one of them. I look around my kitchen, and what I find is pretty bad, from a waste point of view.
This week alone, I’ve eaten two of those pouches of Indian-style food that have come on the market. Madras lentils is my favorite. But forget the lentils — think of all the single-serving packages of soup or noodles. The ramen alone!
“If you look at packaging today, and how we as consumers are used to our purchasing habits, it lends itself to a single-use container,” De La Torre said. “Unfortunately, a lot of those single-use containers are nonrecyclable.”
Some people actually work to avoid using them. I talked to two Tucson practitioners, coincidentally both of them named Swanson, on Friday.
“The perfect example is yogurt,” Charles Swanson told me. “We’re a family of four and those yogurt packages add up. We bought a yogurt maker. It’s not that difficult at all.”
“The other problem is milk containers. You need milk to make yogurt. So we’ve started using (refillable) glass bottles,” he said.
The family also makes its own tomato sauces, Mexican salsas and pickled cucumbers, jalapeños and cauliflower, he said. He refills a dishwashing liquid container that he has had for maybe 15 years.
“We compost, and we have chickens. We end up with a lot of vegetable and fruit scraps. They go to the chickens and they go to the compost,” he said.
Charles Swanson’s family owns Sun Sprout Cloth Diaper Service, 3841 N. Oracle Road. So preventing the worst kind of waste is also his business.
One of his customers is Matt Swanson, no relation. He and his wife and their daughter live near downtown in a small house. They have one car. They try to buy stuff in bulk from the Food Conspiracy Co-op. It’s been a gradual change, he told me. For example, they refill liquid bath soap, Dr. Bronner’s, at the co-op.
“We didn’t get super-radical, super-fast. We just looked to make small changes. All of those changes added up, make a bigger difference than just recycling or something like that.”
So sure — recycling is fine, if you don’t think you’re making a bigger difference than you really are. But it is no substitute for actually working to cut down your waste.
If enough of us were to do that, the single-serving consumer culture itself could change. Now that would make a real difference.