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Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

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That was the mantra of the environmental movement in the 1970s and 1980s when we as a nation learned not to litter and that we shouldn’t throw everything away. Of course, we still aren’t very good at it (and see Coca-Cola vetoing the National Park Service’s decision to ban disposable water bottles in the Grand Canyon for evidence).

Out of these three options, we’ve chosen the latter. Reduce, please. We’re Americans. We don’t fucking reduce. Reuse, what a pain.

So we recycle. It’s great. I can put my cans and bottles in a green box, put it out with the trash, never have to think about it again, and I can feel great about myself.

But what happens after the nice people take away your recycling?

Saint-Gobain Containers is hardly a household name in Seattle. But its hulking plant on West Marginal Way, in the heart of the Duwamish industrial area, is a key link in the regional recycling chain: It turns used glass into new bottles. The company bills itself as a “world leader” in protecting the environment and declares itself “committed to a sustainable future for not only our business – but the planet.” It is the largest maker of wine bottles in the United States.

But Paris-based Saint-Gobain, which operates the Duwamish plant under its Verallia brand, can claim another distinction: It has racked up more fines for violating the federal Clean Air Act than any other operation in the Northwest — $962,000 in the last five years, according to government records.

Oh.

This is not the only case either. The recycling industry has a very dark side. If you haven’t seen Jennifer Baichwal’s Manufactured Landscapes, I highly recommend it. The film follows the photographer Edward Burtynsky on his trip to China. Burtynsky is noted for his beautiful photos of deeply polluted landscapes. One of the most powerful scenes in the film is a visit to a village that works on recycling computers. Basically, they are hammering old computers to get out the valuable compounds that can be resold. But not only do the villagers breathe in toxic dust, but the water and soil is contaminated with heavy metals. And it’s not like these workers are paid well.

Recycling is theoretically a good thing, but it should be the least important of the three consumption-reduction strategies. Since we aren’t going to reduce, we need to commit to reuse. Ideally, grocery stores would have giant containers of products (ketchup for instance) that you could put your bottle under and squirt it in. Basically, everything should be in bulk and you would have to reuse containers. Of course, this would disrupt the plastic bottle industry and cause headaches for grocery store conglomerates, so it will never happen. But the current system of recycling is broken and we need to brainstorm solutions.

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