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Why isn’t recycling an indulgence?

indulgence.jpgThe indulgence issue isn’t going away anytime soon. In fact, we’re seeing it pushed in interesting new rhetorical directions, including calls for a Martin Luther of climate change from no less an environmental personage than Denis Hayes, the father of Earth Day. We can now say without exaggeration that the debate over solutions to climate change is taking on a religious cast.

Which is unfortunate, because what we really need is a sober, urgent discussion of practical steps that will put us on a path to climate stabilization. To our mind, a much better analogy for carbon offsets is the early days of the recycling movement.

Recycling and offsets both have the potential to be broad-based consumer movements. The offset industry is clearly in its infancy, but recycling has achieved adoption rates of 50% of households in some parts of the country. It’s easy to take for granted how widespread awareness of recycling has become since the first U.S. bottle bill was passed in 1971, but that awareness is the result of an intensive multi-decade campaign.

Recycling and offset purchases spring from similar consumer motivations. People want to “do their bit.” This motivation is a noble thing in itself, but the real benefit is that small actions such as recycling and purchasing offsets help to shift social norms. The evidence is still anecdotal, but when we posed the question a few weeks ago, TerraPass customers responded with an unsolicited flood of further actions they had taken to reduce their environmental footprint.

The analogy extends further. Both recycling and offsets work best when embedded in a broader set of initiatives to attack an issue from multiple angles. The recycling mantra — reduce, reuse, recycle — perfectly encapsulates the notion that recycling is part of a web of activities that share a common end goal. Likewise, climate change is the virtual definition of a problem that will only yield to concerted effort on multiple fronts — conservation, efficiency, and renewable energy.

Finally, both the recycling and offset industries require a fair amount of vigilance and oversight to ensure that they live up to their environmental promise. It might seem a simple thing to drop a bottle or can in a blue bin, but the quality of downstream processing can vary dramatically. It has taken years of experimentation and standards development to improve recycling’s benefits. It will also take time for the offset industry to develop a similarly robust set of standards and procedures, although we believe that the offset industry is moving much more quickly down that path than its predecessor.

This is a good thing, because climate change is a bigger problem than packaging waste, and more urgent. In time, carbon offsets will become one more way out of many to “do your bit” for the environment. Not the solution to climate change, but part of it.

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