An Argument Against Recycling

Sustainable Living

There are a number of graphs below. Not to worry this article will not involve a bunch of math. For now just look at the shape of the graphs. You could use a lot of words to describe that shape, but sustainable does not come to mind. Exponential growth can continue off into infinity in pure math, but no real world system can support it. The graphs show the growth in U.S. energy consumption, world wide species extinctions, and human population.

I am not a rabid environmentalist. You will not find me chained to a tree, standing behind a barricade, or carrying a “save the whales” sign. Recognition that our current path can not continue does not require extremest views, it simply requires a grasp of basic high school math. Any closed biological system must find a balance or it collapses and the living things within it die. Human beings are pushing our current system way out of balance in a time frame unprecedented in the Earth’s history. Greenhouse gases, coral reefs, rain forests, biological diversity, air quality, water quality, species extinction, erosion, we are pushing all of these factors and more in a negative direction. Every living system on the planet is in decline. A correction in these trends is inevitable.

But we recycle

The symbol has become pervasive. Blue boxes, bins, and bags are everywhere inviting you to recycle your unwanted mess. Doing so likely provides you with an unconscious little shot in the arm; a good “I’m doing my part” feeling. Except we are not really accomplishing much.

There is an argument against recycling: it’s short term thinking. It is a band-aid approach that accomplishes two basic things: First, it makes us feel like we are doing something. Second, it ensures that we do not really have to deal with the fundamental issues. By recycling we push the bubble forward. We do not need to fix our problems, we just need to delay the crisis until we are dead.

Evian anyone?

We sell water. So we have to be clever. – Jeff Caso, Nestle exec

Bottled water is a great example to illustrate my point. Bottled water is a completely unnecessary industry. No one needs bottled water. People over 30, like myself, can remember the birth of bottled water. If you had told most of us 20 years ago that we would eventually buy water in little bottles at more than twice the price of gasoline we would have rejected the idea as ridiculous. Yet here we are.

A huge industry like that producing bottled water has an environmental impact. Shipping, packaging, marketing, factories and plants, industrial water and air discharge. If bottled water disappeared tomorrow, the environmental benefits would be huge and the sum total effect on our general quality of life would be minuscule.

Canadians drink more than 700 million liters of bottled water . We spent about half a billion dollars on it. 1)1999 figures. We do so for a variety of reasons: perceptions of quality and safety, and convenience being high on the list. We drink our bottled water and feel OK about it because we recycle.

That is short term thinking. We have created a temporary container out of a permanent material. That plastic bottle will last, in one form or another, for hundreds of years. The odds of that material being constantly recycled and remade into a useful object for a few hundred years are zero. Whether you throw that bottle in a blue bin or not the material is eventually going to end up garbage. We are enjoying our comforts and pushing the problem further down the line.

We throw over 500 billion plastic shopping bags every year world wide 2)Extrapolated from data released by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 2001 on U.S. plastic bag, sack, and wrap consumption. Source: National Geographic News September 2, 2003. Again, a permanent product providing a very temporary service. The average grocery bag must be in use for all of 30 minutes. Do you know what would happen to us if we simply stopped producing plastic bags? Nothing. Obviously we would find a way to get our food home. There is no reason why we can not simply produce permanent containers that are designed to be, well, permanent. Of course Grocery Store Inc. is not going to stop providing bags to their customers, and customers are not going to stop expecting them. 3)This is no longer true. Lots of places have now stopped using plastic bags, like the grocery store in our neighbourhood, which underlines how often I am wrong. The bags are extremely cheap to produce which is why the dominate the market. Besides what is the big deal. We recycle.

Bottled water and plastic bags are just easy targets and visible examples of our disposable economy. We do this with everything. Our entire lifestyle is built on temporary things. Take out containers, coffee cups, paper napkins, and packaging. Do you think you are going to pass that bookcase you bought at IKEA down to your grand children? That stuff can only be moved twice before it breaks down into a loose jumble of particle board. How many objects in your home have been made to outlast you?

An Argument Against Recycling

The answer is not to recycle an object. The answer is to recognize that we don’t need to make it in the first place.

Ou addiction is not a sustainable concept. A plan to reduce consumption slowly does not change the ultimate result. It is a lifestyle that must be abandoned. We will eventually be forced into making fundamental changes to the way we interact with the place that keeps us alive, and no blue box is going to change that.

We need to hit bottom. Lets quit messing around and do it already. Throw everything out. Lets have plastic bottles up to our neck. Lets take those landfills with a 40 year life cycle and fill them up in 10. Lets push things to a point where throwing out a bag of garbage costs as much as your rent. Change created by altruism is lovely, but is is painfully slow. Change due to necessity is quick and decisive.

Environmental change currently appears optional. The environmental choices we make do not directly and immediately affect our health, our standard of living, or our pocket book. The effects are slow and easy to overlook. We need to make them immediate and pronounced.

If what we used and what we threw out really affected our lives there are all sorts of things we simply will not do anymore. We will absolutely refuse to support any product that produces waste. Starbucks is going to have to come up with coffee cups we can bury in our flower boxes as fertilizer. McDonalds needs to package their burgers in something our dog can eat. Grocery stores will have bulk items we put into containers we bring from home. We of course will buy a nice cup that will last our whole life and simply drink our water out of the tap.

We will eventually hit the realization that our lifestyles are not sustainable, but the longer we take to do so the more damage we cause. We are slowly destroying the place we live. We are going about it in such a half assed manner that we are fooling ourselves into thinking progress is being made. I propose a massive industrial orgy of one time use convenience products. Lets hit bottom and do it with gusto.

We have decided that a system that extracts oil from the ground, ships it to a refinery, turns it into plastic, shapes it into a spoon, trucks it to a store, sells it to a consumer, who uses it once and throws it out, is better than a system that requires you to wash the spoon.

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Notes   [ + ]

1. 1999 figures
2. Extrapolated from data released by the United States Environmental Protection Agency in 2001 on U.S. plastic bag, sack, and wrap consumption. Source: National Geographic News September 2, 2003
3. This is no longer true. Lots of places have now stopped using plastic bags, like the grocery store in our neighbourhood, which underlines how often I am wrong.


  • Shannon

    I hate bottled water. People who drink it are stupid. Get the damn water from the tap.
    And use a bin when grocery shopping, you will never need a plastic bag again and your bread will not get squished.

  • Dirk Britton

    I have rewritten this post as a speech I gave to my Toastmasters group. You can read the newer version here.

  • Phil

    Hi Dirk.

    As much as I like ‘fresh spring water’ without chlorine, fluorine, lumps of copper chloride, or those friendly water pipe bacteria, I just can’t take to buying plastic bottles of water and drinking from them all day.

    They have their place as portable emergency water, but can never replace the workplace boiled water in a nice cuppa tea!

    Call me silly, I ‘spose.


    PS: I fumbled your voting machine. Hope it wasn’t a really low vote. Accident.

  • Tamara

    Love this post! Brilliant! You’ve hit the nail on the head – yes, we’re addicts and we’re way too insulated from the effects of our consumption habits. Basically, go with the flow till we hit the beach. Or put another way in a book by Joanne Thomas-Yaccato (about being in business) – “if you’re going to fail, fail fast” so you’re not wasting your time and resources and digging yourself into a deeper hole that will be that much harder to dig out of. This is such a refreshing and clear point of view!

  • Vanessa

    Wow. Just wow.
    I was researching for a paper on weather or not recycling is good or bad for the environment and this is a VERY unique opinion, yet extremely logical. I can’t believe I’d not thought of this before but thanks for opening my eyes. We should just stop buying the product in the first place!!! Simple, yet brilliant!

  • Dirk

    Thanks for the vote of confidence. To be clear, I wrote this as a tongue-in-cheek argument. I am not suggesting “throwing everything out” as an actual solution. I just thought it was an interesting way to make a point.

    In truth, it’s probably as much an argument for recycling vs quality products, recycling vs better design, or recycling vs ethical spending.

  • lololololayla

    i totaly agree with this website and i now officaly use proper bags for my shopping and i have never brought bottled water any way it just seem like a waste of money

  • I totally agree with you we should just stop buying the product. i mean if the government wants to make our better wourld then they should help a little more and stop making stupid water bottles let everyone drink the damn tap water. i drink about 2 gallons a day and its all tap water.

  • j

    Could you please put a date on your entries? It is hard to cite your work while doing research for my persuasive assignment.

  • Pingback: Oregon to ban plastic bags pt. 1 | Garden Activist

  • Macy

    I’m doing a persuasive speech on recycling for english. This helped me alot, and I loved the scarcasm. Definatley going to test that out in my speech to gain interest, brilliant way of thinking. Thank you much!

  • janiffer

    please give me a real rebuttle cuz your making me angry with your reasons against that arnt really against.

  • Dirk

    Plastic pellets are currently being produced in China, where they will be melted down and formed into yellow “rubber duckies”. Tens of thousands of them will be transported to docks, loaded on shipping containers, and take the epic journey across the ocean to the shores of North America. Those duckies will be disseminated by a massive transportation network so you can drive your 5,000 lbs SUV to a store near you and buy one. On the way home, when you stop and fill up the tank, you will buy a drink, and then recycle the plastic bottle when you get home, because that makes everything all right.

    This way of life is dead. Recycling is just packing the corpse with ice to delay the smell. Don’t kid yourself, you’re not changing anything. That’s all I’m saying.

  • ChCre

    I live in a country where the tap water is not drinkable, so I buy bottles, where does that leave me?

    Also, I use all plastic bags I obtain from the shop to place waste in, I do not simply throw out the bags (and don’t know many people who do). If we move to getting rid of plastic bags, how does that solve the problem as I will have to go out and buy plastic garbage bags anyway to put my waste in (thereby using the same amount of plastic anyway but at cost to me)?

  • Taylor

    Though there are many valid points present against over-consumption, I see nothing here justifying recycling as “not changing anything”. I understand your concept on making the average person feel like their over-use of plastics is “ok” just because they recycled once that week, but if recycling wasn’t offered, they would most likely consume just as much, and on top of that be doing NOTHING at all in a contrasting effort to help.

  • Zainab

    Well I am working on a editoral that is on a topic about recycling what I read so far is that recycling helps the Earth and enviroment. If we don’t recycle and if it doesn’t come a habit then there will be pollution also if half of the people in America don’t recycle then there will be alot of cicumstances.

  • Dirk

    ChCre, buy less, throw away less. What you package your garbage in is not the point.

    Taylor, recycling is doing NOTHING, that’s my point. It’s worse because it allows us all to feel that we are doing SOMETHING. We’re not. You can put lipstick on a pig, it’s still a pig.

    Zainab, there are consequences to this lifestyle whether you recycle or not. Again, that’s my point.

  • Melvin

    I agree, should just stop buying the water. The only thing is, it cost a lot of money to run a business like that and they make a lot of money I’m sure, so why is it that when our local newspaper comes out with our water report the number of chemicals are on the sheet but never a guage or number to go by. We pay for the water on tap but I had a friend test it and that of a gallon store bought, the number of chemicals in the tap and level will scare you. That of the store bought is very minimal. Why doesnt the water companies have as good of a standard or quality as store bought and how do they get away with it. Bet you don’t fill a glass of our water and look through it and think yummyyyy. Instead, how long before I get cancer or gall stones or something from this. It’s sad. So what do you do about recycling if there isn’t an option even for something as simple as a plastic bottle.

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