Decay, death, rebirth…If you are in a position to observe the natural world you see it everyday, especially at this time of year in the northern hemisphere. Life, which was in abundance during the spring and summer, is now coming to a close for many species of plant and animal life. Pollinators, who worked hard for months doing what they do best, are now struggling and dying. The good news is that their bodies will decay and feed the earth in multiple ways.
It all makes perfect sense, so why am I so confused?
Well, it has to do with a book that I just finished called “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade” by Adam Minter. I won’t go into details, other than to tell you that Adam grew up in the junkyard trade and then became a journalist in China covering the junk/recycling business. He has a handle on the business of recycling and the history of how it developed, both in this country and in China. His main theme is that it is a money driven business…it’s all about what material do you have and who wants it and what they are willing to pay for it and how cheaply can you get it to them…regardless of environment, human rights, and ethical concerns.
At the heart of the matter is that humans now buy lots of shit. Tons of it. And then throw it out. Or put it into the recycle bins at the end of the driveway and feel less guilt because it isn’t going into a landfill. When talking about paper, this is not a big deal. If worse comes to worse, most paper will bio-degrade. Put it into a compost pile and it will eventually become dirt. I get that. Newspapers are actually useful in my compost pile, they are a source of dry material to counter the slimy tomatoes and melons that I throw in it regularly. Glass bottles and aluminum cans I understand, they can be crushed, melted and made into new bottles and cans. Steel is also something that can be reused, it’s one of the reasons that I like working with it. If I have scrap, I know that it will go back to the steel yard to become another rod of rebar.
Unfortunately, us humans have begun creating waste that is more difficult to repurpose. Cell phones, TV’s, computers, and pretty much anything with plastic changes the whole game. Plastic coated copper wiring? These things find their way to China where they are taken apart by hand, millions of hands, unprotected hands. And here is where the money comes in. Copper has a price, and a very good one at that. But plastic? The plastic coating copper wires does not meet the strict requirements in this country so for a long time it got thrown away, until someone in China (where the requirements are lower) got the great idea to use it to make the soles for slippers.
I could go on and on but I would suggest that you read the book if you want to know more. My point is this…there is absolutely nothing that humans do during the day that does not make some form of waste. Eating, driving, talking on the phone…all of these things require some form of waste. It is impossible (unless you’re that guy living in the forest in Washington State) to live without generating some waste. The author himself says:
“Placing a box or a can or a bottle in a recycling bin doesn’t mean you’ve recycled anything, and it doesn’t make you a better, greener person: it just means you’ve outsourced your problem. Sometimes that outsourcing is near home; and sometimes it’s overseas. But wherever it goes, the global market and demand for raw materials is the ultimate arbiter.
Fortunately, if that realization leaves you feeling bad, there’s always the alternative: stop buying so much crap in the first place.”
Well, I can tell you in all honesty that that is unlikely to happen. I, like everyone else, am addicted to buying stuff in the hopes that it will make my life better, easier, longer, more beautiful…I look at my house and feel despair at all the unused stuff that will find its way to China eventually, simply because I didn’t need it in the first place.
And I won’t even go into how it affects me as an artist. Yet.
So, for now, I will just have these thoughts rolling around my head. I am not going to become the latest self-styled ascetic, living the simplest of lives with no computer, phone, hairdryer, or any of the other modern conveniences. But I will start questioning a little more the purchases I make…perhaps I can save a few things from entering that weird back and forth recycling rollercoaster.