That’s right: filth, not waste. Because that’s what it is. It’s a filthy, rotten scourge on our planet and it is more than anything we currently have to address the growing swell of garbage emanating from our homes and businesses. Think we are overstating this a bit? Think again. Our human footprint has an epic presence that makes massive oil spills look like a tiny smudge. And the biggest concern is that recycling might not be the answer.
The economics of waste; an unseen tale of woe
When you think about it, it doesn’t make sense that recycling costs money. After all, it’s providing resources out of waste—resources that would cost more to obtain in other ways. But the economics of this world are such that, not only does recycling cost money, it’s unaffordable to be viable.
Why is this? The short answer is because recycling things is an involved process. But the bigger problem is that everything is priced for consumerism. Businesses want to sell things, and so, they ignore the massive cost to decommission their products in an effort to lower the price to obtain them. For instance, we can get a small computer for under $200. But the cost to manufacture and then to responsibly recycle that device is easily three to five times that cost.
Alternatives to a backward system
Okay, we get it. No one wants to think about the toilet while eating—which is what incorporating end-of-life costs into the purchase price really is. And, often times, recycling isn’t enough or isn’t feasible with certain pieces of waste. But let us not forget the other two Rs from our grade-school environmental days. Reducing and Reusing have to be able to contend with the increasing consumption rate of this planet if Recycling isn’t cutting it. If they don’t, we’re all in for a heap of trouble. Raising awareness could have to do with showing the extent of our consumption. But it’s more likely going to take something more extreme to get us back on track, mentally.
Curbing our appetites for consumption
If we are all increasing our rates of consumption, sustainability is out of the question. However, if we gain control of our consumption and the population increases, there is still a thread of hope to hold on to. But, in order to do this, certain things need to take place.
In electronics, there's the "extended producer responsibility," which might be a good archetype for this new economy. This EPR pushes the onus of recycling back on the manufacturer. By doing this, two things are likely to happen: first, the cost of recycling will slowly eke its way back to the product price--lowering our desire to over-consume (but also giving us a more realistic cost expectation). And second, manufacturers will look for ways to create more sustainable products (thereby lowering their EPR costs).
But there are other appetites that scientists are attempting to introduce into this equation. And, while polymer-eating bacteria sounds great, what happens when it gets out of hand and we need to protect the devices we want to keep? These measures, though seemingly beneficial, are often just as unsustainable as doing nothing. Nope: changing the economy of waste is the only true solution to the filthy future we all face.