We Used To Recycle Everything; What Happened?


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Throughout history, since the dawn of man, we have been a recycling people. We reused anything and everything multiple times before discarding of it – if there was anything left at all. When we were lucky enough to get our hands on something useful, we were careful with it so as to make it last as long as possible. Hunters used every part of an animal. Houses were made from any scrap material that could be rounded up, as it was easier than building one from scratch. Children played with the same toys their entire childhood. Things were cherished – nothing was thrown away unless it was absolutely destroyed. No one bought the “new” version of something before the “old” version was used up. How times have certainly changed…

Now we throw everything away – and most of it still works! We replace perfectly fine household electronics because ours is not the “new” kind, we buy new cell phones every few months, we only keep cars for a few years (which I have certainly been guilty of!), and we are sold so many single-use items that I don’t even know if anyone knows how to use a washable mop/sponge/diaper anymore. We buy cheap clothing by the bundle and it only lasts a few months before it is either out of style or torn to shreds. Products are bought, used for a short time, and thrown away. Most everything we buy cannot be recycled, so it ends up in an overcrowded landfill that we then bury or burn, contributing to the decline in the quality of our environment. It’s a never-ended cycle that seems to get worse by the year – I am hopeful that so many people taking a newly found interest in the green movement that we can reverse the trend before we take it too far.

photo credit: Ed-meister

There are still some smaller industries and companies who do their best to recycle and reuse everything. Take a small farm for example – the farmers grow crops, which feed both them and their animals. The animals digest their food, leaving behind animal poop that is can be used as compost to regrow more crops, which feed more animals…you get the picture. And even better than that, some farmers are using the animal waste to actually make electricity and reusable water – an Alberta farm is the future site of IMUS, which is a new technology that will turn manure into a source of electricity, heat, fertilizer and reusable water – all while reducing greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts. And companies like Patagonia (who I buy my fleeces from) and Act2 turn old plastic bottles (and their own old garments) into clothing and consumer goods. This is very good progress, and every day more and more companies are seeing the benefits of recycling and going green, both for the environment and their bottom line!

We used to be a nation (and world, for that matter) of recyclers, but it has become to easy to just “buy a new one” because the “one” we have is out of style or has a little wear and tear. I think we need to encourage more of us to go back to the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle mantra that we have followed since the beginning of time – even if we didn’t know it then. There is no way we can continue to buy and throw away at the rate that we are – all that stuff has to go somewhere. (Want to know where? Check out the book “Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash” which is a staple on my bookshelf.) Let’s start building quality products again so when we buy something we know it will last a very long time, and let’s start reusing what we already have access to. Enough with the single-use plastic crap that every store is full of – let’s bring back quality goods!

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  1. I really wish we would go back to making quality goods. We have been through something like 3 DVD players in 3 years. It’s insane how they seem to break just after the warranty is up. I remember when we took our VCR to be repaired as a kid. Since the last DVD player we bought was $40 there’s no way it would make sense financially to have it repaired. Nor would it last that long if we did, I’m sure. It’s sad. I don’t need every new gadget. I’d be perfectly happy to find a gadget that did the job and kept running.

  2. I agree Allie – most of the things we buy now are pretty crappy, especially things like DVD players. I think our last one was about $45 and not likely to last too long. We have started paying more for quality items (clothing, furniture) so they will last longer, even if it hurts up front.

  3. Hi, I’m Keith, Mike’s friend. He used to be a pretty rational guy, but about a year ago he watched Zeitgeist and ever since then he’s been like this. Are there interventions for people who fall off the deep end politically? I even made him his own board at my site’s forum, as a way of containing his political view points kind of like the Ghostbusters contain unruly spirits in those folding toaster thingies.

  4. What happened? Recycling was exposed for what it really is… a fraud. I don’t mean to say recycling and reusing plastics, rubbers, and metals (recycled paper just sucks, ok?) is a bad thing… It’s not, I like it, and we should keep doing it.

    The fraudulent part is that recycling companies are reaping profit from the recycled materials. I put a bin out on the curb every week full of cans and bottles, and someone ELSE makes the money?? No thanks… I’m also quite positive that aluminum is the most abundant metal found in the Earth’s crust. I’m quite certain aluminum cans aren’t causing problems in landfills.

    I don’t recycle anymore, not because I don’t believe it in, but because my township has “trash inspectors” which drive around and randomly inspect our trash for recyclable materials. Also, if your recycle bin isn’t properly organized: Newspaper wrapped in a paper bag, tied with burlap twine, cans crushed, and plastic bottles flattened with lids, your recycled materials won’t be picked up. Screw that… It’s just easier and more sensible to NOT recylce.

  5. there will be no such thing as quality goods, so long as capitalism prevails. if the goal of a company is to make money, why on earth would they waste development money on a product that actually has a long life. the longer the life of the product, the less money the company makes. case in point, ipods. business and ethics do not mix. check this out.. http://www.thevenusproject.com/

  6. Just of curiosity, does anyone know of a few companies that DO make quality goods? I have been trying to limit my consumption to ONLY necessities, which is actually mostly things like food and soap of which I have found some lovely local businesses / farms that are fantastic. But its the things I would go to target for- a hairbrush for example… I don’t want to buy plastic crap anymore. Any companies still have lifetime warranties?

  7. OMG! Mike have you ever seen or used a non – capitalist made product. Do you or have you ever really looked at the quality difference between a collective built vs a free market product. Get rid of capitalism is not the solution; the solution is to simply as consumers demand better quality product by I don’t know how about using your power as a consumer and only purchasing those product which meet your standard.

  8. the reality is though, most people aren’t willing to pay extra money and opt for the cheaper product. those who buy non-capitalist products are a minority and are inquisitive consumers as opposed to those who cannot afford such products or have enough money to not care.

  9. Invalid premise. The issue is that in the past century technological advances have provided a model of obsolescence for quickly-outdated technology. Do you like this website? Imagine what it would be like if the machine running it had been in service since 1998 (only 10 years ago), because consumers demanded computer lifecycles of a decade. Imagine also the impact to technological progress if customers demanded long-term usable lives for their consumer electronics. The reason we’ve got so many great advances in technology is because companies fund that R&D – because there’s a steady market and stream of consumers willing to pay for the latest improvements.

  10. Capitalism has brought us all the tainted lead crappy stuff from China; so I am not sure what the solution is at this point other than people need to start thinking about what they buy rather than just about the price.

  11. Seth, so we should continue to throw everything away to replace it with the next thing, even if the old version works? Comparing internet hosting to televisions and cellphones is an invalid premise – one is virtual and the other tangible – guess which one goes in the trash every few months?

    I know why we have so many products; I think we understand that perfectly fine. The question is – “should” we? And where do we put the old stuff we no longer want?

  12. I noticed recently that people started to think about fixing their electronics before they throw it garbage. Fixing is more expensive than buying for cheap stuff. Lots of people even don’t use what they buy. I am in this business and know what stuff people have

  13. I find it odd that on the RHS of the screen there is an advertisement for unneeded “stuff” w/ this website’s url on it. Stickers, coffee cups, tshirts, baby bibs(?)… The article talks about buying “quality” products that will last a long time and wags a finger at buying cheap clothes that are torn to rags after a couple months… then on the “stuff” site the organic cotton shirt “light weight”… Why not make a standard or heavy weight organic cotton tshirt priced appropriately for the amount of resources used and see if it will sell. Is organic better quality? will the light weight last longer than a regular weighted non-organic cotton? I would suggest leading by example…

  14. Average White Guy – you are right, we should continue to toss stuff in the ground or burn it. That’s much better!

    Recycling companies should make money – they are doing the work. You don’t like working for nothing, right?

  15. To David: (and anyone else wondering what to do w/ the old unwanted stuff) you have plenty of options instead of sending it to a landfill and it all depends on what you want in return:
    Money: ebay, garage sale, pawn shop
    Trade: craigslist
    Tax break: Good Will, Salvation army
    Nothing: Freecycle

    As for our consumer electronics, more and more PC vendors are now taking back their older products to be recycled. Or, if it still works, donate it to a church or youth group like boys/girls club… We have to pay more to get the better quality, however even a higher price tag isnt necessarily going to produce a product of higher quality, you may just be paying for a label.

  16. To answer the question “What Happened?”: The Industrial Revolution.

    And what’s all this anti-capitalism stuff? Sure there are flaws and exploits in our system, but that is where government can step in with regulation. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. And maybe take an economics class sometime.

  17. Brian – no one said anything about unnecessary – I am talking about cheap products. As for the promotion pieces – if I could control it, I would. That’s the only organic shirt available.

    Also, I have written about all those things before. But as you can see from the comments, some people don’t care and would rather throw things in the trash, even if they are perfectly fine.

    Some people will never get it; but if one person does, then the post was a success.

  18. Rob – That wasn’t me, that was a commenter. Capitalism can be a good thing, if done the right way. But making money at the expense of slave wage workers and cheap goods is not the “right way” in my book.

    There is money to be made from the environmental movement, for sure.

  19. It is all a supply and demand issue. Given enough time and increased prices, recycling will become an important issue. I remember reading an article a few weeks back about a company doing feasability studies on mining for gold in Japanese garbage dumps. They were claiming that the part-per-million of gold to trash was higher than the ppm in most profitable gold mines.

    If I had the money to fund it, I’d be all over recycling our garbage dumps. There’s plenty of organic material(energy) in there and some useful things like copper, aluminum, steel, silver, and gold. It’s all about finding a way to cheaply sort the garbage.

  20. Seth, this website COULD be run by a computer built in 1998. Hell, I could run a website on a computer built in 1988! Your example is flawed. What I’m curious about is why no one is looking at the longer view of this. Our resources are finite. Gold, Copper, basic metallurgy is based on resources that are quickly disappearing at a exponential rate. We may end up mining our garbage heaps to reclaim the metals/materials that we so carelessly discarded. Especially since the First Plasma Gasification Waste-to-Energy Plant (http://www.treehugger.com/files/2008/11/geoplasma-plasma-waste-to-energy-facility-florida.php) provides a interesting solution. The heavy metals drop while the organic ash is used for energy. While we may be a wasteful society at the moment, it may end up we begin recycling again.

  21. I saw a video on the subject, which I cannot find, but I did find this:


    Basically, we have Gillette (the Mach3 disposable razor manufacturer) for our throw-away mentality. Originally (in 1895), Gillette had the idea that they needed to somehow convince consumers that they needed to purchase replaceable blades. Many software distribution models are based on the original Gillette marketing scheme (there is one guy credited with the idea, again in the movie I can’t find). We’re talking about the give-away-up-front model that popularized Microsoft. At an initial loss, countless replaceable razors were distributed for free, largely focusing on their beneficial, short-term qualities.

    These new blades and the concept of disposables were met with resistance to begin with. But, how can you pass up a free offer? Once the name and the product were well known, Gillette was on its way to becoming an extremely profitable company for the next 100+ years.

    Remember that as a consumer in a “capitalistic” society, your purchasing patterns carry more weight than you realize. By adjusting those patterns and informing your friends, family and neighbors about quality products, you can spark a revolution which you are at the center.

    I think that our economic-centrism is a problem more than capitalism is. Although capitalism can be part of the problem. The question is, How can we produce high quality-long lasting products while still maintaining quality day-to-day living? Well, some industries will always exist as long as humans do, like agriculture and those regarding the production and maintenance (cleaning of) clothing. The child and baby industry also exist, however it could and should be largely marginalized (think hand-me-downs).

    It is a difficult concept to realize; how high-quality, lasting products can be made to meet low demands. Perhaps part of the solution would involve diversification of industries. That is, corporations no longer should focus on a single product or industry, somewhat like food industries have moved slightly (multiple food types are processed on the same equipment). This way, a company can expect that in general, no product has a high demand, however they supply numerous products which will sustain revenues over time.

    On a side note, I do think that at least 50% of the population is capable of growing their own fruits and vegetables, thus marginalizing agriculture significantly and as a result freeing up farmers’ time. I’m hard pressed to believe that anyone should have to work past 40 years of age these days.

    One more point to answer why we hardly recycle any more– people seem to have been convinced that there is a distinct separation between themselves and the environment– a false and dangerous view.

  22. David, last paragraph of the article: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”… Reduce means to lessen the amount of resources consumed and use only what is needed… by buying unnecessary things one does not “reduce”.

  23. We’re all for the recycling, but we have to convince corporations first: I bought a 100$ laser printer, and it’s 3000 cartridge only printed 200 pages.

    Now, the new cartridge is 94$, while the whole printer with a new cartridge is 99$.

    This is simple example of non-sense, and we still agree with it. But I will do my part and buy the overpriced cartridge.

  24. There are some quality things out there. Shoes are a good example. I can make a good pair of leather shoes last at least 2 years, and that’s wearing them every single day, 365 a year. Then they get re-soled and go for another 2 years.

    Thomas Pink shirts are pretty good too. I haven’t bought one in a decade or so, since the existing ones are as good as the day they were made. Maybe they outsourced to China now, but if they’re still making them anything like 10 years ago, they should be good for a long time.

    Furniture. Ikea blows. We buy Amish stuff from a carpenter in the Finger Lakes region on NY state, and it is built to last.

    One thing I have found to be pretty good strategy, is to buy portable/camping type items and things designed for rugged/extreme outdoor sports, then use them for regular tasks. Things like stainless steel mugs or enamel plates, decent rock-climbing rucsacs instead of fancy suitcases. Anything designed for an outdoor sport, typically tends to last a very long time if lightly used indoors only.

  25. The reason we recycled more in the past was because most of the cost was in the resources itself. In the stone age anyone could make needles from bone, coats from hides, fire’s etc. but getting the resources (bone, hides, wood) cost the most time: it took days to hunt animals and hours to get the wood to burn a fire for an hour.

    In the modern time the costs of resources are very low in comparison to the overall costs and because of all the automation it is far cheaper to build something than to repair it. For example: a Dell computer gets assembled in 2,5 minutes, when I open the computer and take some broken part out I have already taken longer than that.

    The only way we will start recycling resources again is when that is cheaper than taking them from nature. This is pretty visible in the recycling world today: most of the electronics recycling is done because of the precious gold and copper in them, aluminium is recycled on a huge scale because extracting it from garbage is a lot cheaper than extracting it from bauxite and plastic isn’t recycled much at all since it is very hard(=expensive) and the result very low quality in comparison to “new” plastic made from oil.

  26. @John Ballentine —

    I think they call it slag, that stuff that is left over centuries later…

    When we convert the idea of recycling as a method to recover rather than energy source we’ll be moving in the right direction. This is already happening out of Universities/etc.

    Trash = Energy

  27. sorry – wrote that backwards, should be:

    as an energy source rather than method to recover we”™ll be moving in the right direction…

  28. “We reused anything and everything multiple times before discarding of it – if there was anything left at all.”

    Right. Like, say, the Egyptians in the pyramid building era. Or, the Spanish in the new world. Or, even, the Roman empire, where archaeologists still find valuables in mausoleums. Or in Celtic burial mounds…

    People will reuse something when they can’t get anything else. If you provide them with abundance, they WILL use new stuff – it is something that seems to be programmed into us. Subsistience cultures get the wonderful reputation of, for example, “using all parts of the buffalo”. Well, that’s because they never had enough of a carrying capacity to support large cities with widespread mining.

    I don’t buy the premise.

  29. Lydia – I have a Mason Pearson hairbrush that I’ve had since I was about 13 (and I’m 31 now). They are partially plastic, and they are pretty expensive (some are well over $100). I certainly didn’t pay that for mine. I’m guessing it was about $50 back then, but assuming that all MP hairbrushes will last at least as long as mine has (and it’s still in perfectly good shape), at $100, it averages to $5 per year, which I’d assume is a better cost per use than most hairbrushes.

  30. I heard something a few weeks ago about how people in Africa call donated stuff “dead mans clothing” because they don’t understand throwing something away while it still has use. It makes you think.

  31. Africa is a big place. Where I live there is a pretty good understanding of how the used clothing supply chain works. I was recently rifling through a bale of tee shirts that came from Northern California. Many of them were unused event related stuff. Volunteer shirts for the SF marathon. Shirts with silly team building slogans from Silicon Valley. The pub crawl shirts don’t sell that well in a Muslim country.

    Oh, and here in a relatively well off African country, people throw away some of the used clothing that doesn’t sell.

  32. We have definitely become a society whose first instinct is to chuck away and buy new. This has happened in just a couple of generations as our parent or grandparents who lived through depression and the second world war were used to making do and mending things that broke. We need to regain that mentality and those skills.
    As to recycling – that should be a last resort – reuse should be the first option. If you do recycle make sure you do it properly

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