by Tina Morris
If you have found yourself in the hallways of Pike during Friday morning recess, you might have watched your life flash before you. As you desperately tried to climb the walls to avoid being trampled, an army of seventh graders passed you — pushing, pulling, rolling and hauling every shape and size of blue bin towards the ever-so-enticing dumpster behind the gym. At Pike, we have made a stalwart commitment to recycle and compost as much as possible to keep our waste out of the landfill or incinerator.
But are our efforts misguided? We have been taught — some of us as long ago as the 1970’s — that the 3 R’s (REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE) is a code to live by if we care about our environment’s future. Waste is bad, recycling and composting are good … AREN’T THEY? Or is this issue, in fact, more complex than it first appears. Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate.
A few weeks ago, an article, “The Reign of Recycling” by John Tierney (NYT, Oct. 3, 2015) questioned our blind devotion to this endeavor. By pointing out the drawbacks of recycling– the cost, the low prices for recycled products, the moral dilemma of “public good vs. private virtue”, the carbon emissions produced by plastic recycling plants, etc. – Tierney does us a favor by making us think about our reasons for doing something that can become a routine without a cause, a ritual without a rationale. There are many arguments both for and against recycling, many of which are valid and some of which are not. As is the case with most controversial issues, one can argue either side depending on which data you choose to make your case. Certainly, the old “nothing is perfect” adage applies here.
Truth be told, the recycling effort has migrated from a desire to help one’s environment to a huge business, one judged by its balance sheet and evaluated by profit and loss. As such, its altruistic origins among the eco-activists of the 1960’s have been lost while it has morphed into a more self-serving endeavor that makes us buy more “recyclable” products than we would otherwise. Our love for plastics, for example, has been condoned by that recycling logo on the container’s bottom; we can now indulge with a clear conscience. Instead of asking ourselves whether we really need plastic water bottles, we justify our “need” by saying, “But they’re recyclable”. So, can recycling have the opposite result than the one we intended? The answer is “Yes,” and it is imperative that we, as educated and informed citizens, recognize the traps of falling for the advertising of the plastic manufacturers.
We also have to keep in mind that it’s not an “either/or” situation. We need to REDUCE more than anything else. One way to do this is to become more mindful of what we purchase, and when we buy new products, try to buy reusable materials and avoid excess packaging. Our very last resort should be to recycle.
The system isn’t perfect by any means. The post-consumer markets are variable, the process is not without pollution, the programs might cost more than throwing it all into a landfill. But for Pike, where our mission is to educate the next generation to become responsible citizens, recycling allows us control and mindfulness, giving us a chance to return what we have taken, which will save us from living our lives as users rather than stewards of our earth.
The Pike School is an independent, coed, day school for Pre-K through ninth grade in Andover, Massachusetts. Visit pikeschool.org to learn more about Pike – and visit our blog for more thought leadership.