You can't recycle your way out of climate change

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People are probably feeling a little guiltier about plastic trash because it’s an issue that’s been more in the news lately, Obviously, whatever people can do to reduce the amount of plastic trash they’re throwing away is good, but it also true that that’s not the main source of greenhouse gas emission, which as you say, is more about transportation and industry, industrial agriculture, and so on. These problems are related, but not exactly congruent.


And while it’s a problem, consumer plastic only accounts for about half of that in the famous Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The plurality is fishing nets.


If you live in a US city, chances are your biggest contribution to climate change is your car

The Green New Deal is notably lacking with regard to transportation-related emissions.

Replacing gas-powered cars with battery-powered cars also won’t solve climate change.


There is no one solution to climate change. We have to change a huge chunk of society as we currently know it. It’s like losing weight via diet and exercise. Everybody knows what they should be doing, but it’s no fun and expensive so we settle back in our old self destructive patterns.


To me, ‘diet and exercise’ for weight loss implies similar importance of both diet and exercise, which is true for virtually nobody (from my experience, it is more like 90% diet and 10% exercise unless you’re really doing something unusual).

‘Government/corporate action’ and ‘consumer action’ are categories that can both be brought to bear when talking about ways to repair climate change, for sure. But I bet it’s closer to 90%/10% there too, so it is a misleading way to describe the solution.


Your argument makes it sound like it’s even more accurate than I thought…

But I wasn’t really intending for it to be a direct metaphor for climate action, I was just trying to illustrate the mindset that makes it difficult for governments and people to stick to something that feels bad and doesn’t have immediate results via an analogy that people can relate to.


I remember an eagle scout project that involved the entire troop, cleaning up after a timber company so the salmon could again spawn. Im sure all the parents were proud. It did nothing to keep that timber company from doing it again elsewhere.


It’s a systemic problem in that humans desire creature comforts. We all use a bunch of climate control, because it makes life more comfortable, and the infrastructure is in place to make is very easy to do so. Our cars also exist to make us comfortable; if we believed in minimizing our waste footprint, we’d all live near our jobs and ride bikes every day.

The fact that there are companies that profit from this model is baked into the capitalist mindset that permeates our culture.

The solution is to let the climate change happen and move to higher ground. Anything else goes directly against our human nature.


Not by itself, no. But it’s clear that the time of gas-powered cars has to end, but that will mean not only electric cars but other transportation options like more mass transit, bike paths, cars-on-demand (i.e., Zipcar and the like), and so on. I mean, if you live in a city, why do you need to own a car at all?


Good article. As I’ve said before, mass consumerism is not going to be the solution to our environmental problems.

Until we attack the main drivers of the issue, we’re not going to progress, and those main drivers are energy and transport:

source- (World Resources Institute, 2017).

We need a colossal shift away from carbon-intensive energy production, and fuel use. One useful step would be getting rid of an insane international agreement which forbids taxation of aviation fuel:


But it is the source of much of the waste that’s washing up on the beaches, piling up in landfills, getting tossed out of cars into our streets, and so on and so on. Fishing nets are piling up in the Pacific, but they aren’t the bulk of plastic waste.

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I find it useful to ask myself, what caused climate change? Was it an overeliance on fossil fuels? Or something deeper?

I have no doubt that there is a plan for the 1% to stay on top of a melting world. The rest of us wont like it. So, Trump!

If (some of us) were serious about fixing not just climate change, but also garbage patch, MRSA, organlegging, nuclear waste disposal, airline regulation, banking laws, labor laws… and the hundred other crises we collectively face…

…then the question becomes not so much carbon emissions, as how to have an economy that does for altruism, what capitalism does for greed. If species survival is on the line, then I think that is a solvable problem.


The main drivers are the hoggish greed of the people who run the corporations who benefit from perpetuating this mess. They don’t care. They literally believe they are so rich and powerful they are beyond consequences.


I was at a wedding reception last year and sat next to a person who works for an arm of Earth Justice. I started asking her about the best ways to recycle and the best alternative energy sources. I was surprised to hear that she seemed to think that while some alternatives were better than others, they all had pretty major problems.

To cite just one example, in Brazil, when they create hydro by damming a river, it floods existing forest. The forest decays in the water to create methane which is a greenhouse gas. Apparently, this isn’t a one time event. After the initial methane release, the forest continues to send debris into the reservoir created by the dam, which decays, causing methane, ad infinitum.

Her solution was that we simply need to use less energy, full stop.


The only reason these people are rich, is the rest of us accept their money. If you or I grew up that rich, we’d be fucked up too. (Or wed become Siddhartha).

Figuring out a system where we dont have to acept their money, seems more productive to me than merely punishing the guilty.


When regulatory capture has already occurred, then the distinction between private and public doesnt really mean that much. Today Im looking at the FAA, but its a pretty long list.

There’s no real political will to address this substantively and at scale in the U.S., and there really won’t be until it’s too late (spoiler alert: it’s already too late). The Green New Deal is the kind of programme we need, but the Democratic Party establishment is also claiming that it’s pointless to have a debate dedicated to discussing climate change.

Meanwhile, since the GOP can no longer deny climate change they instead say it can be addressed by individual action – not because they believe it, but because it will provide them with justification for their brain-dead plan of “survival of the richest and whitest” after a serious die-off. See, for example, the runaway Oregon Republican legislators hiding behind white nationalists.

Well, if you live in a large non-sprawl city run by liberals, you can do without a car because that means there’s usually decent public transit and good walkability. Those cities tend to be very expensive to live in, though.



There are other factors, but they’re dwarfed by the CO2 emissions from fossil fuels.

Climate change isn’t the only environmental concern we have, but it’s the biggest one and the most difficult to deal with. It’s a root cause of many other environmental concerns as well. Note that I’m not saying we can ignore everything else until climate change is taken care of, humans are capable of doing more than one thing at a time.


Unpopular opinion: I don’t care about plastics piling up in landfills. In fact, I kind of want plastic to pile up in landfills.

Why? Because we aren’t going to be able to keep the oil in the ground. Getting the plastics into the landfills concentrates those plastics somewhere where they won’t do any immediate damage and provides future generations a place where they can recover the plastics and recycle them into the things that we should be using plastics for today instead of all the stupid stuff that we are currently doing with them: durable items, items where plastic is the only real choice of material to use.

Much of what we set out to be “recycled” gets shipped to Asian countries who throw it into the ocean, directly or indirectly. Until we can make sure that our plastics are actually, really being recycled, it’s best to make sure that they get properly landfilled.

ETA: Recycling plastics is the best. It is what should happen to all plastics, and we should leave the oil in the ground. We need to put controls in place to make sure if something gets sent off to be recycled, it is recycled or it is properly disposed of. But this is an industrial problem, not a personal problem.