For the past two months, I have been investing some attention and effort in taking care of setting aside all my dry waste in my room's bin. I wish to separate the recyclable ones and the unrecyclable ones. Dispose the recyclable ones responsibly. I don't know what to do with unrecyclable ones, such as shiny cookie wrappers, I might do some handi-work to make a pillow or bag or some thing out of it. There is no proper collection mechanism or disposal mechanism in the small Indian town I live. I was originally inspired by the famous video "The Story of Stuff". Ironically, a depressing point mentioned in the video is the reason for this question. In the later half, it mentions the following :

First, the waste coming out of our houses is just the tip of the iceberg. For every one garbage can of waste that you put out on the curb, seventy garbage cans of waste were made upstream, just to make the junk in that one garbage can you put out on the curb. So even if we could recycle a hundred percent of the waste coming out of our households, it doesn't get to the core of the problems.

It set me thinking whether there would be any point at all in me taking so much care for segregation, reuse and recycling, since whatever household effort in dry waste disposal is miniscule compared to industrial waste.

So, as a principle, as a recycling philosophy and, more rationally, why should individuals bother to take the pains for household disposal in comparison to industrial waste disposal ?

  • How does your contribution differ based on other contributions? – paparazzo Sep 30 '17 at 14:35
  • @Paparazzi : I didn't understand this question. Does it mean this? : "Why should I decide what is good work depending on whether others are doing good work or not, I should continue to do the good work to care for the earth irrespective of others do it or not. " If you meant this, yes, that's a valid point. That's more of a moral responsibility to do the right thing. I was exploring if there are any other rational reasons. For example, if I have to convince others (say, in a school environ project), this question would arise. – Whirl Mind Oct 2 '17 at 11:05

If 70 people recycle their waste, does that mean that the 71th person doesn't have to? The answer obviously is no, this person should recycle his/her garbage just like those other 70 people are doing.

It's certainly true that there is far more industrial waste than residential waste, but I don't think the 70:1 ratio is correct. While an exact number cannot be given because we know little about how much waste is generated world-wide, rough estimates indicate that it's lower than that. If we look at the US, one of the world's biggest waste producer, a figure that is cited often is a 97:3 ratio between industrial waste and municipal solid waste. However somewhere around 70%-90% of all industrial waste is liquid. If you compare industrial solid waste to residential solid waste it's likely more of a 2:1 or 3:2 ratio.

Numbers aside, I think the point the "Story of Stuff" is trying to make is that buying things has a much larger impact than you might think. If you really want to minimize your environmental footprint, it's best to think twice about buying something. Do you really need it? By not buying you can make a much bigger positive contribution than by buying and recycling (although most economists will probably disagree with this).

  • Didn't know about the differentiation between solid and liquid waste, 2:1 or 3:2 surely makes a more compelling reason than 97:3 . Yes, I am fascinated about 'buy less' too and about the "Story of Stuff' video. We tend to think of questions like these, during the depressing "what's the point" moments we all have. :-) . I would want to mark this as an answer just for the ratios, let me see if there is a more compelling answer that comes along soon. Thank you. – Whirl Mind Sep 28 '17 at 10:44

It is true that household recycling alone is not going to solve the problem of stuff.

But I personally still recycle because it increases my awareness of the resources I consume and the kinds of waste I generate. Which increases the opportunities of finding ways to reduce and reuse.

In my opinion this is one small step toward creating a culture of responsibility for our actions. And industry will feel it when enough of us "vote with our feet" and opt-out of wanton consumerism to instead support more environmentally friendly alternatives. Industry is made up of individuals after all, and it will change when those on the inside and the outside exert economic pressure to do so.

Whenever I feel discouraged that my actions are too insignificant to make a difference I remember the story of the starfish by Loren Eiseley.

While wandering a deserted beach at dawn, stagnant in my work, I saw a man in the distance bending and throwing as he walked the endless stretch toward me. As he came near, I could see that he was throwing starfish, abandoned on the sand by the tide, back into the sea. When he was close enough I asked him why he was working so hard at this strange task. He said that the sun would dry the starfish and they would die. I said to him that I thought he was foolish. There were thousands of starfish on miles and miles of beach. One man alone could never make a difference. He smiled as he picked up the next starfish. Hurling it far into the sea he said, "It makes a difference for this one." I abandoned my writing and spent the morning throwing starfish.

  • yes, self-awareness building is a great benefit of the exercise. – Whirl Mind Sep 28 '17 at 10:39

I tell you why I do it:

Saves me time. I don't have the luxury of garbage pickup. I live on a farm, and I have to take my own garbage to the dump. We have three classes of garbage: Bluebag (recycables) dry matter (construction waste mostly), and kitchen (food waste.) We also compost.

We produce 2 bags of kitchen waste a month, another two bags of recycleables a month, and a garbage can of dry waste a month. When it's not hot, I can get away with doing the garbage about every 2-3 months.

We also have container recycling. Here all liquor, beverage, and milk containers have a deposit. It's a nuisance to go to the recycling centre, so I have a corner of a shed set up for this. I go to the bottle depot when I have a full pickup load -- about every 2 years.

As to why should YOU do it:

Right now it's a small part of the solution. (I'd like to know what's included in those 70 bins of other....) But that's how we learn how to do things. Meanwhile you can double the life span of municipal landfills, lowering your taxes.

Baby steps.

  • Good answer. Thank you. What that 70 bins is meant in that Story of the Stuff video is : When we throw garbage, say, a milk container. To produce that milk container, the gases that were emitted, the industrial waste that was drained into the river, the mining that was done etc and the garbage that was produced in the factory to produce the container, is 70 times as much. That was the context for the mention, to exhort people to understand the extent of waste. – Whirl Mind Oct 20 '17 at 21:19

You pay indirectly for local landfills, regardless of where other waste is made. If people paid directly for their waste, the choice between recycling and landfill would be obvious.

As an aside, I was recently at a place where they labelled their bins: "recycling", "landfill", which brings the question of options into starker relief.

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