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Recycling: The Thrill is Gone?

By Steve Stajich

 

Baby Boomers may someday tally-up their impressive list of accomplishments as a generation. It would certainly make a good six-part series for CNN: “Earth goes Boom!” might possibly be the title of the episode on how we attempted to turn the tide of environmental degradation created by 20th and then 21st century life.

Of course much of that had a certain ebb and flow; an oft times “one step up, two steps back” quality that to some extent had to do with the powerful forces aligned to exploit the planet. Buy a Prius, and then hear about an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico created by multinational oil greed. Well, wait… that Prius does use some amount of gas…

Sometimes it’s just the size of the job. Santa Monica recently enjoyed a record turn-out of volunteers for a day of picking up trash and litter on the beach. A few months later, Heal the Bay released its Annual Report Card and Santa Monica Pier was listed as sixth of the 10 worst beaches for water quality. Heavy winter rains created billions of gallons of polluted runoff. California needed those rains; Santa Monica needs to commit to runoff infrastructure, perhaps doing that before building hotels on top of art galleries. Just sayin’…

Now there’s word that in some ways Californians are losing their edge on recycling. People of my generation may be old enough to remember when there was no such thing as recycling, with the possible exception of old newspapers. Of course during World War II, everything that might help the war effort was reused. In our lifetimes recycling has become a kind of populist religion with practitioners in almost every home, infrastructure for collection built into city systems, and separate containers for trash and recyclables at airports and on our streets. This, Boomers, we did accomplish.

But according to the July 5 L.A. Times business section, Californians are now recycling less. It may not be their fault. Rates for recycled beverage containers have dropped to their lowest point in a decade. Drops in the value of recycled plastic, aluminum, and glass have closed recycling centers and that means that people who need to take their own recycling to a center have longer travel and wait times at the center. One environmental advocacy group projects that this increased hassle in recycling is causing at least 3.5 million additional containers to end up as litter or landfill.

Here’s what I love about the issue of recycling: It’s not an “issue.” Human beings do not want to be buried in their own garbage, period. And ever since one-way bottles replaced glass and plastic learned to replace everything we’ve become a species that literally builds mountains out of trash. If you’ve never had a chance to visit Santa Monica’s recycling center, I strongly urge you to load up the kids and go have a look. Make sure your whole family is in touch with the sheer volume of solid waste produced just by our city alone. Stop by the area set aside just for discarded electronics. It might help you later this year with Christmas requests for new smartphones.

Our 21st century recycling culture popped the bubble that there was a magic place where the discarded effluvia of life goes and then disappears. No, it stays and stays and stays. We may someday learn how to efficiently and cleanly burn solid waste to produce energy… but that day has not arrived. Again, just spend an hour at the recycling center and ask impressionable youths, “Where did you think it all went?”

Whether we’re losing our gusto for recycling or not, there are two specific vulnerabilities we can all address immediately. One is what we might call the cult of bottled water. My nominee for ironic icon of Modern Life? So-called “Smart Water”… that comes in a plastic bottle. I have a repeat use water-bottle sized thermos that I fill from a filtered water tap on our kitchen sink. It’s not enough, but it is one simple thing I can do right now.

And then second, there’s this entire industry dedicated to making something called “soda”. Carbonated soft drinks, or water and sugar with flavorings, do nothing for us nutritionally nor do they actually quench thirst as plain water would. Yet the Huffington Post reports that those who consume them drink 44.7 gallons of them a year. Then there’s the obvious link to teen obesity. Here’s a category of fluids America ingests daily that do nothing but bring harm, and we can’t seem to stop ourselves. If we could, and we carried our own water bottles, we’d avoid introducing 35 billion used containers into the environment each year. For now, allow me to advocate for vigilance on recycling. As teachers used to say, you will be tested on this. If not tomorrow… soon.

Steve Stajich, Columnist

in Opinion
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