The trouble with “feel-good solutions” is they offer the illusion of progress without addressing the problem. Mollified by the soothing certainty that “someone” is doing “something,” we drift ever farther from any meaningful mitigation or resolution.
In recent decades, the practice of recycling has become a cornerstone of this edifice of self-congratulation. Much more than the simple dispensation of unwanted material, the thorough rinsing, diligent sorting and proper disposal of emptied containers, papers and other miscellanea has risen to the level of moral imperative – or so we’ve been told.
If cleanliness is next to godliness, recycling appears to bestow a type of godliness. How righteous we feel, dutifully emptying our bins in the proper container, playing saviors of the Earth. Whatever happens next in the grand circle of consumerism is no concern of ours. Having “done our bit,” we walk away with straightened spines and heads held high to generate another mountain of waste.
The insufficiency of this “solution” is apparent to anyone who steps foot on Cayman’s beaches. Despite public awareness campaigns, strategically placed receptacles and the (apparently perfectly acceptable) public shaming of anyone gauche enough to toss an errant bottle in the trash, our beautiful island, like so many others, increasingly is being inundated with plastic waste.
That is due to a simple, immutable fact: Without adequate facilities, and a bottom-line (i.e., dollars and cents) incentive to transform mountains of “recyclables” into usable products, no number of congregants in the church of recycling can turn used plastics, paper and glass into anything but trash.
Developed nations have known this fact for decades. For a while, China stepped into the breach, importing more than half the world’s plastic “recycling” (including an estimated two-thirds of plastic “recyclables” from both the U.S. and the U.K.) for countries unwilling or unable to do the work themselves. For a while, China had both the capacity and the need for the materials, which were used in manufacturing – well, some of them, at least.
The dirty and otherwise inferior material – tons and tons of it – was left to pile up, forming unsafe, unsightly and unsanitary mountains of trash.
Now, even China is unwilling to play the world’s garbage collector. The country is closing its doors to plastic waste, throwing first-world Earth-first do-gooders into a bit of a spin.
On a much smaller scale, here in Cayman, well-meaning people have been stuffing multicolored bins with items, they believed, were destined for reincarnation, only to learn that our islands’ “recycling program” has been little more than a convenient myth.
As the Compass reported last week, until recently, the majority of recyclable material collected by the Cayman Islands Department of Environmental Health was left to languish in unprocessed piles or found its way into the landfill (by a rather circuitous route). In 2014, only 100 tons of the 277 tons of recyclable material collected was actually processed for recycling (whether, from there, it truly was recycled into usable goods is anyone’s guess). In 2016, 980 of 999 tons collected were processed, according to the department’s records. The overwhelming majority of that material – 832 tons – came from junked cars.
Jim Schubert, senior project manager for the Integrated Solid Waste Management System, told the Compass his department intends to expand its operations in the future, taking in even more material. We trust he will forgive our skepticism. Unless there is a market incentive for using recycled materials, all those carefully washed and sorted bottles and packages are likely destined to become yet another pile of trash.
We are not blithe about the problem: Refuse, especially plastic refuse, is a global issue that is specifically important to Cayman as the trash washes up on our beaches.
But we need more than “feel good” efforts; we need to come up with viable alternatives to remove this unsightly menace from our shores.