Anyone who collects stone arrow heads realizes that recycling has been around for as long as human beings. You constantly find spear points that had been reworked into new, reusable blades. Even then, recycling was considered a sensible approach. However, although recycling makes good sense, some things done in the name of recycling do not.
One reason for the recent resurgent interest in recycling is that it often requires less resources and effort and it can cost less than using virgin materials. In addition, an ethic has emerged that discourages wastefulness. In societies with egocentric views, the ability to be wasteful and to consume beyond present and future needs has been a sign of prestige. However, throughout history these cultures eventually poison their own living space and, ironically, destroy themselves through what may be called a natural process of recycling.
The desire to reverse this process may be compared to renouncing drinking after waking up with a hangover. As soon as the situation improves, memory fades and we return to the same old habits. Of course, a percentage of eco-sensitive people always exists. But there are also those who are so "now"-oriented that they reject any thinking beyond "me" and the present. Most of us are so preoccupied with the process of living that we vacillate between the opinions of other groups who tell us how to think and what to do.
In our culture and in most European cultures, the widespread waste of resources in part reflects a religious and historical world view. The notion that God placed mankind in charge of the planet and its resources is taken as divine right to exploitation. The ability to prevail over, or eradicate, those who disagree with us seems to indicate that God is on our side. And environmental destruction is stated to be our God-given right to do whatever we want.
This philosophy directly contrasts with those ancient cultures who believe that working in harmony with the planet is the will of the Gods. However, as the muck rises around our ankles, we are beginning to doubt our interpretation of the divine message. The rising interest in recycling is a sign of that concern. As landfill space dwindles and environmental consciousness rises worldwide, the case for recycling is strengthened. While the landfill problem mostly affects urban areas, environmental sensitivity has a wider audience.
Recycling has always boiled down to costs and benefits. For example, was it less troublesome for our ancestors to recycle an old spear point than to make a new one? Is it worth our valuable time today to recycle something or is it cheaper to throw it away and buy a new product?
Perhaps we can learn from the age-old tradition of scavenging and scrap recycling. Scrap drives were a part of the war effort in the '40s and, today, scrap dealers are in almost every community. So it seems simple to adapt the scrap recyclers' approach to a sustained community-wide recycling program.
Scrap dealers buy and collect the materials for a profitable market which, like all markets, is subject to the law of supply and demand. If market demand drops, so does collection since the cost to collect and store the materials outweighs the benefits. The same principle is applicable to large-scale municipal recycling projects.
But how can you be sure that recycling will at least partly solve your solid waste concerns? How do you avoid a recycling program failure due to incompetent management? The answers are not simple.
First, you must have a thorough knowledge of your community, including its goals, values, political structure and financial situation. To be successful, a community's characteristics must be consistent with the benefits of solid waste recycling. It also is essential to understand the recycling process, including what can be achieved, how much it will cost, personnel needs, required changes in behavior, how it will intrude into personal freedoms and marketing requirements. The public and local politicians must be prepared for program requirements such as structures, transportation, collection equipment, labor costs, legal changes, penalties for non-compliance and the uncertainty of returns. A realistic budget that reflects the values, accounting considerations and tolerance of the community is essential. Try to avoid unrealistic expectations and don't be distracted by minutiae or be blinded by enthusiasm.
Remind yourself frequently that recycling is not a new idea. It is only a part of the solution - not the whole solution.