This week the Indiana University Office of Sustainability interns ventured to Indianapolis to learn more about Energy Solutions, Republic Recycling Center, and The Nature Conservancy. Interesting discussion was generated from meeting with representatives from all 3 organizations. It was great to learn more about wind and solar energy, and discuss the features of the LEED certified building and green roof at the Nature Conservancy– but throughout the day our conversation seemed to drift back to what we saw at the recycling center.
I have always had mixed emotions about recycling. There is no doubt in my mind that we should be attempting to reuse plastics, glass, aluminum, paper products and other recyclable material that already exists from current production of these goods; reusing these materials to divert them from landfills and avoid the destruction of more raw material resources is undoubtedly a good thing. However in encouraging material reuse, recycling seems to create a few negative side effects along the way.
The larger issues of excess production and over-consumption are not addressed by recycling. Rather than curbing our use of resources, recycling encourages continued use of plastics and other recyclables by creating new commodities out of the final products of the sorting and bailing process. These large heavy bails of recyclable goods are often shipped around the world to places as far as China to be reused into products that then are shipped back around the world. The impact from transporting these bails must also be figured into the equations, which it doesn’t seem to be. Recycling facilities are able to sell these bails as goods to companies manufacturing new goods. This process means their economic interests are to encourage more goods to be recycled– which doesn’t address the bigger policy issues created by the overuse of packaging materials, plastics, papers, aluminum and glass.
Recycling is also an easy way for people to feel that they have done their part for the environment. Once a person has easy access to recycling, they might feel better about buying crates of bottled water– rather than using their tap, or over-purchasing other individually packaged products.
Even with its downfalls, recycling is a positive alternative to disposing of reusable products in landfills, but thinking about the bigger picture of the of consumption patterns of the western lifestyle it is clear that recycling is only part of the solution. In addition to the great discussion that was raised after visiting the plant, it was really great to be able to see the recycling process first-hand. Watching the co-mingled stream of goods as they were sorted gave me a new appreciation for what goes into the entire process. Visiting the plant was a very eye-opening experience on many levels. I hope that it will generate future discussion among the interns in the group about what solutions may be more viable to address the bigger policy problems of over-consumption in the future.
Written by Rachel Fullmer, Living Sustainably Off-Campus Intern