Years ago I read a self-published treatise on recycling that I found on the shelf in my local community college library. It was written in the mid-1970s. I don’t remember the author or the name of the book. The main thesis was something to the effect that recycling was a waste of time—and actually made things worse in the long run by allowing the status quo to continue to operate for that much longer on finite resource reserves. The author gave an example based on aluminum recycling: there is content loss and degradation at the molecular level each time the metal is recycled. So even if consumption didn’t increase and we were able to recycle every aluminum can produced, we would continue to need to extract resources for new metal to replace what is lost and to provide the energy necessary for the process itself. But the worst part is that recycling feeds the illusion that we have solved the problem of finite resources when we have merely made slight alterations in the time frame.
CFL light bulbs might make a good contemporary example of this illusion. CFLs “save energy” because they produce more luminescence per kilowatt than do incandescent light bulbs. So by swapping out incandescents for CFLs we can burn less coal for producing light. But we are still burning coal, so nothing is changed there. And the mercury content of CFLs means that we have not made any headway in terms of reducing environmental heavy metal contamination. But wait! Now we have LED lights that last far longer than even CFLs—some of which use an organic semiconductor! Surely we are on our way to a bright and completely sustainable future! Of course, LEDs still use energy, both in producing light and to manufacture.
Less of a bad thing does not magically transform it into something good. So the coal supply lasts a bit longer. So the industrial machine can grind away at the biosphere for a few more days, or weeks—or years even. Where is the “savings” there? Each day the machine is allowed to continue means another 100 – 200 species gone forever. Entire species! Each and every day!
Pull the plug today and there are 150 unique and irreplaceable life forms that will still be around tomorrow. And maybe one of them is us.