September 22, 2007

Waste Not, etc.

When did the slogan "Recycle, Reduce, Reuse" first come into vogue? The 1970s? I'm not sure. During that time, though, when overflowing landfills were garnering national attention, industry-funded groups such as Keep American Beautiful were trying to fend off the green movement by emphasizing voluntary consumer efforts to recycle as an alternative to more stringent waste-management laws.* Sure, recycling wasn't as effective at stemming garbage as reducing or reusing (much of "recycling" ends up junked anyway), but it also doesn't threaten to curb production or slow the pace of consumerism, which, from the standpoint of manufacturers, is what matters.

Anyway, the Oregonian had a great story recently about how Oregon's "much touted recycling rates" can't keep up with the state's tide of garbage production: a ton and a half per person each year. So some regulators are trying to go past recycling and revisit those other two neglected precepts—reduce and reuse. After all, there's also the climate angle to consider: "Stopping the growth in waste… generates the third-highest greenhouse gas savings, behind only boosting auto mileage and increasing renewable energy."

The problem is, it's not going over well. Businesses, for their part, are tentatively okay with making tweaks, such as reducing packaging to cut costs. Green residential design is also being talked about. (There are huge energy savings to be had there.) But more ambitious items—mandates for green product design, planning fees for bigger houses, carbon taxes—seem to be mostly off-limits. After all, recycling gets support from manufacturers and, especially, garbage collectors. For obvious reasons, though, no one has any financial interest in promoting "Buy Nothing Day" and the like.

* Keep America Beautiful's original focus was an anti-littering campaign as a way of steering focus away from dread bottle-deposit laws, and only seems to have shifted its emphasis to (voluntary) recycling later on. The group also seems to have founded the National Center for Solid Waste Disposal, which, as best I can tell, helped spearhead the burgeoning waste-disposal industry in the 1970s. Here's a curious Time article from 1971 on "Gold in Garbage." Another KAB offshoot appears to have gone even further, working to convince the EPA that incineration was the best alternative to burying garbage underground.
-- Brad Plumer 2:57 PM || ||