Recycling is hypocrisy

Recycling is a clever game. It seems like a good strategy to mitigate pollution and climate change, but, in the end, it only makes things worse.

The recipe to make the game of recycling work is clear: promote an aspirational goal, put the required infrastructure in place, make the behavior as visible as possible (to create social pressure) and hire marketers to create clever campaigns. Voilà! Problem solved. 

Said no one ever. The game has been requiring some unusual arrangements, such as the immoral disposal of one country’s “recyclable” garbage in another country’s backyard. It worked for many years until China, in a laudable move, refused to continue being the world’s trashcan. China claimed an economical reason: the percentage of contamination in materials was too high and many of them were not recyclable at all.

Indeed, contrary to widespread belief, it may not be economical to recycle most plastics, milk cartons and materials such as coffee cups and yogurt containers.

Yes, there are already other countries willing to fill the void left by China. The game and its supporting ideology must go on. In fact, they depend precisely on not making people accountable for their unsustainable behaviors. Let us bury the consequences of our overconsumption elsewhere. No skin in the game is the implicit rule.  

In fact, while most people call it recycling, the real name of the game is overconsumption. By playing the fake game, we are indeed exacerbating the real underlying problem. This happens due to two special features of recycling.

First, by providing peace of mind and the sensation of mission accomplished, recycling saps the energy necessary to tackle overconsumption.

Second, it makes the perfect excuse for more spending. Strong experimental evidence suggests that positive emotions associated with recycling promote, you guessed right, more consumption.

Indeed, the bulk of evidence suggests humans are always on the lookout for an excuse to exploit their desire for hedonism. The academic literature is full of studies demonstrating how implicit excuses (such as buying “green” products) lead to overuse of resources and the avid consumption of luxury products.     

However, the entire game could not work if its engine was obvious. Thus, recycling acquires a kind of sanctified status by appealing to the desire of good citizenship. We all want to be good citizens and recycling fits nicely into this frame. What can be more mind soothing than the felling one is doing the right thing for the environment?

Governments and nonprofit organizations – many unsurprisingly sponsored by polluting industries – promote it wisely as a “green” behavior. We all want to be green, right? As a bonus, there is an increase in the legitimacy of businesses through perceptions of good corporation citizenship.

By piggybacking on the appeal of green marketing, recycling thus validates current lifestyles and worldviews that have been putting an unsustainable toll on the planet.

There is probably nothing more telling of overconsumption than the explosive growth in the multi-billion dollars industry of self-storage. Not satisfied with the production of massive amounts of waste, we already cannot keep the accumulated stuff inside our own houses. We “need” more and more – stuff and space.

Recycling is pure illusion. We can nudge people to adopt the other “Rs” – reuse and reduce, but we are fooling ourselves. It is profitable to let the world go to hell: all elements in our socioeconomic ecosystems conspire to overconsumption.

The pressure for growth is everywhere, from business magazines to financial markets, from academia to governments. Evolution made us hungry for status, whose currency is consumption. The cycle is endless and self-reinforcing: new acquisitions trigger transient dopamine rushes in our brains, producing spikes of joy only to be followed by rapid adaptation.  

As suggested above, the entire economic system depends on convenient smokescreens. Who cares about the dwindling population of gorillas in Sudan, the major supplier of the mineral colban that keeps our shiny cellphones working so smoothly?

We do not see the consequences of our actions. Living under the ideology of “free” markets, our unsustainable lives depend on unjust taxation on the silent and the absent: the world’s poor, our children and grandchildren.   

It is high time we stop kidding ourselves with recycling. We need a paradigm shift that leads to less consumption, easing the pressure on the finite resources of our planet.

A good first step is paying attention to the writings of the economist Robert Frank, who advocates substituting a taxation on consumption for income taxes, mitigating the effects of our perennial status seeking. Instead of hiring marketers to promote recycling, we should be hiring them to promote counter-ideologies in the messy marketplace of ideas.