Saturday, May 10, 2008

Blue bags over...

Fortunately not the White Cliffs of Dover to paraphrase the immortal wartime anthem of Vera Lynn; but they are banished from the streets of Chicago and the fields of Indiana (their usual destination). The city announced that the Blue Bag recycling program is to be replaced by more practical bins that separate the recyclables at birth so to speak, rather than wait for some hapless twerp to perform the task at a later time in some garbage dump someplace - which of course didn't happen. The program had long been a farce of preposterous proportion, accompanied by monstrously inflated claims of success by Mayor Capone (the king of bicycling and other things green) until the whole sham was ripped open, much like the bags themselves tended to do, by a series of articles in the Tribune. Why were we not surprised to learn that the infamous blue bags, if they were used at all (the general gender appeared to show some intelligence by disdaining them as pointless), were dispatched with the rest of the rubbish in some far-flung field in another state, rather than being painstakingly picked over at great expense to retrieve the precious cans and bottles.

Recycling in a large urban area remains a formidably complex problem. Although instinctively one feels it is the right thing to do, returning all those materials back into the cycle of production, the costs of doing so don't necessarily reward the effort. When all the factors are taken into consideration; and that exercise is very complicated and occasionally controversial; for some materials one is left with the conclusion that maybe all that effort to do the "right thing" was in vain, as more resources are spent on the recycling than on getting fresh material. Unfortunately the materials that are most in the public eye in recycling - all those horrid plastics that don't degrade - are the ones least effectively recycled and the ones that emanate from our precious dwindling fossil fuel supplies. In Europe, recycling is more institutionalized; but for them recycling also includes burning stuff to obtain energy; and that is the fate of most plastics - not exactly the cradle-to-cradle philosophy expounded by the likes of Bill McDonough (self-proclaimed sustainability visionary). The Euros recognize the difficulties associated with recycling plastics and they take the path of avoiding their use. While more beverages appear in the plastic in this country, you will not find a single one on a European grocer's shelf.

Is using glass and aluminium actually superior? When one accounts for the energy costs in extracting them the answer is not so clear. There are several questions really: the availability of resources, the energy costs, the global warming impact, pollution and other environmental effects of disposal. While we feel good by religiously putting all the stuff with triangles in the blue bin, and get all self-righteously angry at those that don't, it is not at all clear that we are actually doing any good by it.

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