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Recycling in the Anthropocene

March 12, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Recently I’ve been reading salvos in a raging debate about biological and ecological conservation. Traditionally, conservation has largely been about protecting “natural” environments by keeping human presence to a minimum. Now some observers have pointed out that there are no longer any environments untouched by human activity (especially if you include the effects of carbon dioxide and plastic pollutants); “pristine” is a moving target; and the approach as a whole is elitist (for example, see here).

But the biggest critique of traditional land conservation and species preservation efforts is that, on a global scale, they are failing. In short: “Biodiversity on Earth continues its rapid decline. We continue to lose forests in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. There are so few wild tigers and apes that they will be lost forever if current trends continue. Simply put, we are losing many more special places and species than we’re saving.”

Science writer Emma Marris’s Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World (2013) gives a thoughtful overview of people and projects exploring new approaches to conservation in the Anthropocene, the age of human-dominated ecosystems.

An analogous debate has been simmering in the resource conservation movement for at least the two decades during which I have been directly involved. When environmental issues emerged around the time of the first Earth Day in 1970, there was a broad sense that reducing consumption of resources and production of pollution was important for the well-being of people and the planet (the term “sustainability” had not yet gained popularity). Fairly rapidly, the notion of “recycling” began to solidify around actions individuals could take to conserve resources. Despite the fact that setting out bottles, cans and newspapers was a far cry from actually making new goods (true recycling), the moniker “recycling” came to stand for resourceImage Removed conservation in the public imagination. And, though largely symbolic, it had the advantage of being truly grassroots — something everyone could do to help solve a global issue.

Sadly, just as land conservation and species preservation efforts have largely failed to stem rates of deforestation and extinctions, so too has the recycling movement failed miserably to stem the tide of resource wasting and pollution.  The brutal truth is that individualized “recycling” in the context of municipal solid waste management barely makes a dent in the throughput of materials in the global economy. Despite earnest efforts by many, resource consumption and pollution is increasing, and at an increasing rate.

When we started UPSTREAM in 2003 (as Product Policy Institute), it was because we believed the recycling movement – which had rebranded as “zero waste” (disclosure: I was an early advocate) – was mostly paying lip service to waste prevention and reuse, and was ignoring public policies and civic actions that could correct our take-make-waste economy. Samantha MacBride summed it up well in Recycling Reconsidered:  larger waste streams had been rendered invisible, and individualized responsibility for waste and recycling had co-opted more meaningful approaches. UPSTREAM focused on producer responsibility as a paradigm shift that could, in theory, address the problems at the source.

What’s changed is growing awareness of the scale of impending and interconnected global ecological crises, and their rapid acceleration since 1950. The consequences of not conserving resources are becoming more than theoretical. Major focus has turned to burning fossil fuels as the overarching issue, and the need to leave most of those resources in the ground if we are to avert the worst consequences of climate disruption (extreme resource conservation!). The linkages between fossil fuel energy inputs and the throughput of manufactured goods in the global consumer economy are slowly (too slowly!) becoming apparent.

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In the light of climate disruption, global inequality, and in the context of a world population slated to increase 30% by 2050, I think what’s critical at this juncture is that we first reassess the magnitude of the challenge.  Individualized recycling is a start but it is not doing nearly enough.  Producer responsibility has met fierce resistance from parties vested in the status quo, but it turns out it’s not a silver bullet either.

Emma Marris addressed mending the divide in the land/species conservation movement in an op-ed she co-wrote for the New York Times: “Working together and using a diversity of approaches is far better than inaction or squabbling,” she wrote. “With hard work, political support and lots of money, we can have the cherished landscapes, the most endangered species, and the comfort of knowing there is still wild nature left. We just can’t expect to have them all in the same place.”

Those of us concerned about resource conservation may well need to step back and reassess the scope of the problem, be open to new solutions, and be willing to collaborate more successfully if we are to make a significant contribution to the challenges facing each and every one of us. Resource conservation in the Anthropocene needs to be about creating new relationships to stuff (like fixing, sharing, sufficiency) and building communities and modes of governance capable of responding to a changed world. We’re all in this together.