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Yvonne Abraham

Recycling can’t fix what really ails us

Recycling isn’t the answer to our trash woes, writes Yvonne Abraham: reducing trash is.Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe/File

Recycling can’t fix what really ails us.

Filling those blue bins is a comfort for those of us who panic at rising seas and dying reefs. We can’t control the head-in-the-tar-sanders determined to fry us, but at least we’re doing our part to keep reusable trash out of landfills and plastic ocean gyres.

But an awful lot of plastic does end up in landfills and oceans. Scientists estimate that only 9 percent of the 8.3 billion metric tons of the plastic the world has produced in the past 60 years has been recycled. If we don’t get a handle on it, there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills by 2050, and — ton for ton — more plastic in the oceans than fish. And a quarter of the material we’re putting in blue bins is too contaminated to recycle, so that’s also going to landfills.

Then there’s the China factor. Early last year, the country that used to process most US recyclables stopped accepting a huge amount of the trash we shipped over there. The recycling economy was thrown off-kilter, with trash piling up in recycling plants, and cities and towns facing rising costs for doing the right thing.


Recycling is still a noble aim. But it doesn’t get at our real problems when it comes to trash. Reducing is where it’s at.

This is where Janet Domenitz, executive director of MassPIRG, has landed after battling for almost four decades to hold back the growing mountains of plastic all around us. For years, she has been trying to get lawmakers to expand the bottle bill, for example. But recycling is about just trying to contain the consequences of over-consumption. She’s increasingly focused upstream, on the gushing consumerism that sends all of that trash flooding into the world in the first place.


“The waste industry has dominated policy-making” when it comes to trash, she said, because we’ve just accepted that we’ll always consume in a way that produces massive amounts of trash. “How much we consume and throw away has been our definition of success for way too long.”

She keeps coming back to a saying of her grandmother’s: “Enough is too much.” That’s pretty radical in a world where too much is never enough. We buy so much stuff: cheap, irresistible stuff we can afford to use once and throw away; stuff we see on celebrities or in unboxing videos and must have; stuff we order in our pajamas and have delivered to our doors, cocooned in cardboard and plastic; stuff that fills our houses and storage units and, eventually, landfills. The United States accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population but it produces 40 percent of its waste.

We’re a mess. But I’m not here to make you feel guilty. Unless you’re one of the politicians blocking bills that would help us get a handle on our trash. Or the corporates pushing us into believing happiness means buying and throwing away more food and clothes and cellphones and plastic forks and, and, and. You people should feel very bad, indeed.

Guilt will just distract the rest of us from what we need to do here: Push our leaders to actually lead on waste; push companies to quit with the crazy packaging and disposable everything; screen out the insane messaging urging us to fill our lives with more stuff.


Domenitz believes we’ve already started down the road to zero waste. She sees hope in her 20-something kids and their contemporaries, who care little about buying new cars, or new anything; in Rent the Runway and other parts of the sharing economy; and in the 93 Massachusetts municipalities that have enacted bans on single-use plastic bags. To her list, I’d add the growing movement toward more simplicity, and the global climate protests led by students rightly incensed at the olds who have let them down.

“Why do you think Marie Kondo is such a hit,” she asked. “People get, in a very fundamental way, that we are buried in our crap, [and] that we have got to get rid of our stuff.”

Unburying ourselves is the way to lasting change.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeAbraham.