On this day in the year two thousand sixteen of the common era, 18 days and 15 hours after it began, my green home experiment died a quiet death. My sad little recycle bin only contained several junk mail flyers, a popsicle stick (not recyclable), and a paper plate that probably shouldn’t be there because it’s coated with wax. Do I wish good things for my planet? Of course. I carry the same first world guilt that many Americans do. I fear photoshopped pictures of frightened polar bears desperately clinging to their shrinking icebergs. The image of Iron Eyes Cody, a tear streaming down his face as he watches garbage callously tossed from a vehicle haunts me. But, I’m also terribly lazy and trying to figure out what can and can’t be recycled was a pain so that was the end of that.
After a brief pang of guilt, I moved on. I’m an adaptable guy. But it does highlight a common human problem. We invest tremendous amounts of energy in solving the wrong problems. Trying to solve the solid waste management problem by forcing people at the end of the chain to dutifully sort and separate their trash is doomed to fail. National participation rates hover in the 20-30% range. With the exception of aluminum, recycled materials are a net cost and energy loss. Virgin plastic resin costs 40% less than recycled plastics. Raw silica sand used for glass production is around $20 a ton vs $40 to $60 for recycled glass. A quote I either found or made up regarding the efficiency of recycling is: “There is a simple test for determining whether something is a resource or just garbage. If someone will pay you for the item, it’s a resource. But if you have to pay someone to take the item away, then it’s garbage.”
We are not going to solve the enormity of our waste problem by imploring people to rinse out their plastic mustard containers and carefully place them in a special bin. The problem needs to be solved upstream. Radical changes to packaging, incineration and reuse of the ash, building a dedicated monorail and shipping it to the desert to create a giant pyramid future historians can marvel at… these are the ideas we need to focus our energy on.
It feels as if much of the United States is stuck in a conventional thinking mode. The old guard is longing for a time when we clearly dominated the world without really trying. Uber is a great example. My city just recently fought a protracted battle with the transportation upstart. The old guard was trying desperately to protect the cab companies and the way things have always worked. I recently took a trip and used both Uber and a cab company. Leaving for the airport at 4am, I checked the Uber app and there was a driver a few blocks away. It took him a few minutes to get to my house. His car was new, clean, and he was a pretty nice guy. $9 for my trip, taken care of by my credit card already on file. The return trip I took a cab from the airport. The cab was a rattling death trap that smelled of stale cigarette smoke and was driven by someone who grunted monosyllabic answers. Nearly $30 for that lovely experience. Why would anyone spend energy to defend that sort of old school business?
Politics, foreign policy, artificially created “shovel ready projects”, bringing back industrial manufacturing, the Eagles and Rolling Stones reunion tours, Hollywood remakes of movie classics like Vacation and Point Break – why? Move on. The world has changed. It’s time to think forward rather than wistfully dreaming of the days of the Sony Walkman and killer mix tapes. As Homer Simpson famously said, “Lead, follow, or get out of the way”. I think he meant the line to the Krispy Kreme, but donuts or global innovation… it’s all the same.
We’ve had a pretty solid run. We can feel good about it. CNN can continue to crank out specials documenting each decade. But we need to come to grips with the fact that it’s over. The world is changing at a remarkable pace. We need to make sure we’re solving the right problems or we’ll look up and wonder why our standard of living plummeted. My point? I’m not sure. I think I’m just frustrated because my Zune music player finally died and the new music landscape is just so… confusing. Sigh, why can’t we just bring back the original MTV?