Recycling Reconsidered

Recycling Reconsidered:

The Present failure and future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States

Author: Samantha macBride

Pub: mIT Press Price: £18.00

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"Recycling Reconsidered" Book CoverSamantha MacBride has written a highly specialised, incredibly dense book that argues: ‘Recycling as we know it today generates the illusion of progress while allowing industry to maintain the status quo and place responsibility on consumers and local government.’ In Recycling Reconsidered, MacBride gives a detailed explanation of the history of US recycling, before going on to explore different perceptions and practices of recycling, and then arguing for stronger federal involvement and tighter legislation of consumer responsibility.

After chronicling domestic waste recycling and reuse, the book moves on to ‘Tonnage and Toxicity’, a section that discusses solid waste from industry that is not formally labelled ‘toxic’, but which is decidedly different from the rubbish we know and love. Here householders’ waste seems pathetically miniscule in comparison, but MacBride urges us to react to this discrepancy by demanding and facilitating change, not throwing a ‘trash tantrum’ of pessimism.

Perhaps slightly distractingly, she then uses waste management as a way of understanding social inequality, and how waste plants – nearly always located near black communities in the US – entrench a social hierarchy. MacBride offers a detailed description of a materials recovery facility (MRF) as ‘fascinating and impressive’ (though to me evokes the rather emotional waste plant scene in Toy Story 3).

A large part of the book is dedicated to MacBride’s overall message: we need to change the way we view recycling through engagement with ‘ecological citizenship’, entailing concern for resource depletion, pollution, ecosystematic disruption, health risks and inequity. MacBride notes: ‘Ecological citizenship is overshadowed and crowded out by other progressive expressions, such as changing material-lifestyle practice (especially via recycling, buying or not buying), establishing businesses or social enterprises, experimenting with design, educating the next generation, and encouraging people in at times vague and at times moralistic ways to “think differently”.’

MacBride believes this distracts from the real business of changing practices, the heart of which shouldn’t lie in tempting the public with altruistic morality, which can encourage and alienate in equal measures. MacBride aims to refocus the debate around the preservation of the planet’s resources and space. It’s not bad to make changes – to recycle, to ride a bike, to conserve water – but the challenge is to make that jump from the individual leading a ‘good life’ to getting society as a whole to change.

It is, however, hard to see who the intended audience is – this isn’t a history book on the changing social practice of recycling, and it’s not a pamphlet advocating change. Perhaps the work is too weighty for the amateur, too expansive for the professional.