The concept of recycling is not a new one. It was first introduced with the advent of the plastic bottle. Recycling has been a mainstay of subsistence societies for thousands of years and was an aspect of the thrift necessary to survive in an unpredictable world ruled by scarcities. The term “we use everything about the pig except the squeal” was a factual statement. Nothing was wasted; everything had a use.
Three events in history changed this viewpoint and opened the door to a throwaway society ruled by a “waste it” mentality. One was the introduction of mass production techniques by industrialists such as Henry Ford which helped remove scarcity from the equation, and made it possible for large numbers of people to own commodities manufactured in volume. Those same concepts applied to agriculture resulted in larger, more certain agricultural yields. The second was what could be called “The Chemical Revolution”, which has it’s origins in the early 19th century, the industrial application of which was made on a broad scale in the mid-20th century. Thus began the Age of Synthetics. Practical applications in the chemistry of substances gave us chemical fertilizers, nylon and polyester, revolutionized medicine and eventually led to the ubiquitous plastic bottle. The third event involved the employment of mass communication systems, newspapers, the beguiling radio and finally television. Entertainment fueled by advertising revenues ushered in the Marketing Age and Consumerism as a social philosophy was born. “Planned obsolescence” materialized as a means of maintaining the momentum of Consumerism.
The net result of these three events has been a wholesale re-configuration of raw materials into other things at a resource-busting rate. Simply stated this is the cycle of a waste-motivated society such as ours. The product, of course, is “waste”, which can be defined as substances or materials that no longer have a use.
It is not necessary to throw out the technological advances of the last century and a half to restore the true economy of this planet. In fact those same technologies which created the problem of waste are quite capable of resolving that same problem. The missing link is organization.
Every end product of our Throwaway Society can be recycled or put to further use. Soils, wood, ceramics, metals, plant debris and bio-wastes have been recycled throughout human history and, in fact, make up the vast majority of recyclable materials on this planet.
Paper, glass, textiles and plastics make up a more problematic category as they have undergone non-biological reconfiguration from their original form, but again are not beyond current knowledge and technological means to recycle for further use in our society. Recycled glass and paper are the best known applications of this sort of economy.
The most neglected and problematic to the aesthetics and health of our planet are the recovery of chemicals and of re-useable goods. The damage done by bad husbandry of the chemical by-products of industry is well-documented throughout recent history. Responsible chemical recovery policies at the industrial level and adequate recycling options at the consumer level answer the problem.
The environmental clutter and sheer mass of wholesale discard of re-useable goods such as household goods, clothing, electric mopeds, intact demolition debris, hybrid buses, building materials, computer equipment, hybrid cars, lighting fixtures, electric vehicles and other manufactured items begs the re-evaluation of wasteful manufacturing strategies such as planned obsolescence.
Strong resale markets that are themselves the product of depressed economic conditions extend the lifetime of existing commodities thus keeping them out of the waste stream. The degree of workability of this depends utterly on a change in the value given thrifty economic practices such as personal stewardship of one’s belongings.
The idea that the economy of the world depends utterly on the consumption of manufactured goods is the fundamental idea that precludes wholesale endorsement of recycling technologies as a viable economic activity. This fixed idea has done more than any other factor to make the problem of reusing and recycling the end products of our industrial world “unsolvable”. Making recycling economically viable may result in entirely new technological applications which will extend the lifetime of this civilization. It would be a terrible thing to have to throw this civilization away because it could not conceive of the usefulness of its own end products.
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