Recycling as Self-Flagellation

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Rob Lyons of Spiked makes the following trenchant observation concerning recycling in Great Britain:

Even recycling itself doesn't need to be such an almighty pain in the neck. ... [I]nstead of following endless arcane rules on which kind of rubbish goes into each of the veritable epidemic of multi-coloured containers that local authorities currently provide, with co-mingling there are just three containers: wet waste, like food; dry recyclables, like paper, plastic, card, metals and so on; and everything else. The dry recyclables are then separated out by machine at a depot. The machines aren't quite as good as doing it all by hand - yet - but they're still pretty good.

... This convenient solution, however, doesn't play well with greens. This is partly because of an obsession with recycling every last iddy-biddy bit of waste. But the main reason why co-mingling irritates greens is because if you take away the complexity of recycling, the ritual of thinking about it and doing it - if it's barely any more than shoving stuff in the bin, just like it used to be - then we don't have that daily eco-message drummed into our heads: "We are greedy, wasteful people who throw too much stuff away."

There would be no point in spending lesson after lesson at primary school teaching kids about how to recycle, and why to recycle, if it's just sticking stuff in the same bin. For greens, the attraction of complex, confusing systems of recycling is that they remind us, as we carry them out, what wasteful and destructive creatures we are. It is more like penance than a practical activity. [punctuation edits, bold added]
That last sentence is the height of understatement, as one can easily infer from the rest of the article.

Although Lyons fails to challenge the moral premise behind environmentalism, he does indicate that government market distortions are used to make recycling of household refuse appears to be economical. If recycling really were a life-promoting activity, however, it would not be necessary to graft artificial rewards onto it in order to promote it.

Unfortunately, unless one defends acting selfishly without compromise, such facts won't amount to a rhetorical hill of beans in a culture that is predisposed to regard self-interest as morally neutral at best.

-- CAV


: Corrected a typo. (HT Brad Harper)


Steve D said...

The problem is that recycling does not even do what it purports. In most cases the energy required to recycle is greater than what would be required to make the material from scratch.

You might notice whenever an example is given about how much energy can be saved the example given is always aluminum (usually cans). The reason is that aluminum is actually a case where recycling can save energy - in most of the other cases it actually costs energy. They use the only example they can to make the point. Think, for example about the effort which has to go into recycling newsprint including some pretty harsh chemicals which must be used to remove the ink. If you follow this argument to the logical conclusion you end up with recycling contributing to global warming…. Hmm.

Environmentalism is a particularly nasty religion, in may ways worse than the traditional religions. Rob Lyons seems to come close to making this connection but in reality recycling is not just like a penance but in fact IS a penance.

Gus Van Horn said...

Not only that, environmentalists also oppose recycling in one blatant case when it would make lots of sense: spent nuclear fuel.

It is remarkable how intrinsicism skews the evaluation of a type of act whose merit, like any other, depends on evaluating rational values in context.

There are many cases of recycling actually making sense, but not being called such. Usually these are in an industrial context and have gone on for years. But these go unnoticed and unpraised because they actually promote human life. OTOH, recycling -- when it wastes our time and more valuable resources -- is treated like a holy ritual.