Recycling is like putting a filter on a cigarette

March 24, 2018 by Joshua
in Nature

At a dinner party recently, people were putting out snacks for people to eat. We were already eating carrots from a bag when one suggested putting them in a bowl. She reached for a single-use disposable plastic bowl. Since we had almost finished the carrots, I suggested not using it.

She looked at the bowl, pointed out that it said “recyclable” on it, and concluded that using it would cause no problems. Everyone else agreed, reasoning that if it’s recyclable, it doesn’t affect the environment. It’s a freebie.

First, according to National Geographic, 91% of plastic isn’t recycled in the United States. They report that 8 million metric tons of plastic ends up in the oceans every year—five grocery bags of plastic trash for every foot of coastline around the globe. You’ve read plenty of statistics. You know about the many Texas-size patches of plastic growing in the world’s oceans and so on.

Second, to make things more visual, what percent of the mountain of garbage in this picture do you think says “recyclable” on it?

I bet a lot.

How I suggest thinking of recycling

People overwhelmingly seem to see recycling nearly as not polluting.

I propose thinking of recycling as closer to landfill waste, which, apparently, 91% becomes.

I suggest the following mental model:

If landfill waste is smoking, recycling is smoking filtered cigarettes—an improvement, but smaller than you’d think.

If the metaphor doesn’t work for you, you don’t have to use it. If you have trouble understanding the point of metaphor as opposed to literal truth, you’ll get hung up on details, but I find the model works better for me than thinking recycling means environmentally benign or negligible.

By working better, I mean I pollute less while improving my life otherwise. My food is more delicious for avoiding packaging.

I recommend trying out the view and seeing if you find yourself consuming less plastic and polluting less the world we all share.

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