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Recycling: a Moral Imperative or an Economic Opportunity?

It's a moderately well-known fact that China has been buying up America's recyclable waste for decades. What's less well known is that recently...


It's a moderately well-known fact that China has been buying up America's recyclable waste for decades. What's less well known is that recently it's basically stopped, or at least significantly stalled. Environmentalists are bemoaning the sudden recycling slow-down as a definitive lapse in China's global environmental responsibility. But as Adam Minter of the blog Shanghai Scrap thoughtfully points out, they shouldn't be. Why?The answer is that despite the pang of guilt we feel every time we throw a glass bottle in the trash instead of a blue recycling bin, in most parts of the world, recycling is a business opportunity. And like a lot of other industries right now, business is bad. So while we may still be generating more trash than we could possibly hope to fit in our overcrowded landfills, the fact that we're generally consuming less means that there is less global demand for raw materials, and therefore less need for countries like China to comb through our crap in search of them.That we in the developed world view recycling as a moral responsibility with tangible environmental benefits is astounding, a PR effort whose success is on par with DeBeers and the global obsession with diamonds. And that's a good thing (the recycling bit, not the diamond-craving)-we'll never achieve any sort of long term environmental stability without fundamentally incorporating the principle of reuse into our lives. But it's also unique. Other countries are primarily in this game for the money, and the money is bad right now. Our entire recycling effort is predicated on the fact that someone, somewhere, finds it valuable-nay, profitable-to sift through our waste in search of raw material. When that stops being true, it's cause for alarm.Thanks, Jaime. Photo by Flickr user Kees & Sarah.
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