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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  1. dangerouspenguin - May 2, 2007

    Nicely put, Tom. On a recent road trip to Baja California I collected all of our cans and bottles to bring back to Canada for recycling. My partner (who is 9 years older than me) found this a bit ridiculous, which just goes to show what a decade of intensive campaigning can accomplish. It wasn’t a choice — I (and most folks my age, I would wager) simply cannot put recyclables in the garbage when there’s another option. I’m curious to see what role the offset market will play in 2017 and beyond.

  2. Mike FL - May 3, 2007

    Your partner was right. Carrying all your trash from California to Canada is way over the top. There may even be a pyschoanalytical term for such a compulsion.
    Anyhow, I just wanted to say that a lot of research is coming out now indicating that carbon may not be the cause of climate change at all. I just want everyone involved to keep an open mind because the truth is still out there somewhere.
    [Ed — our mind is plenty open, but that doesn’t make this statement any less true.]

  3. Rob - May 3, 2007

    So, the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra is often forgotten, but it’s still good to be there to help remind people what order to do things in.
    A similar mantra seems reasonable for carbon — reduce, make efficient, offset.
    Admittedly, the “make efficient” part is a bit jarring, and could use some work, but I can’t think of the right verb. Perhaps “efficate?” 😛

  4. Adam Stein - May 3, 2007

    Perhaps “conserve, reduce, offset”? A bit redundant, though. “Reduce” really encompasses both conservation and efficiency.
    Also, needs more alliteration.

  5. Bryan B - May 4, 2007

    dangerouspenguin’s comments demonstrate to me the extreme delusion people are living in. Just think of the (hundreds of?) thousands of plastic-bottle equivalents she burned to take that cross-country road trip and she’s concerned about a few bottles.

  6. Jonathan - May 5, 2007

    Now we cant leave our homes Bryan? Whats the point of living that existence?

  7. Monty - May 6, 2007

    I humbly submit that it does not matter what the other person is doing. The goal is not for us all to find a way to not have a carbon footprint (good luck holding your breath), but it is to do better. If you currently are driving an H2 for two hours every day, then reducing the driving to an hour each day is a huge step forward. If you need to fly to another state or country, making certain you are recycling while you are there certainly helps. Do I scoff at the other grocery shoppers for not bringing in reusable bags, or for buying eggs from out of state? No. We all simply need to raise awareness and do better than we were doing the day before. Do what you can, and do not worry about the other guy, and we will get there, folks.

  8. Aaron A. - May 10, 2007

    I still don’t get the indulgence argument. It relies on the assumption that those receiving offset revenue are being paid to do something they’d do anyway, on the exact same scale. As TerraPass’s discussions with Waste Management indicate, this simply is not the case.

    One thing that critics continually (perhaps intentionally) overlook is that consumers generally don’t perceive themselves as having a choice in what types of energy they consume. I can choose to install a programmable thermostat, and I can choose to plug my computer into a power strip so it doesn’t waste power at night, but I can’t change the fact that my electricity comes from a natural-gas-fired hydroelectric plant. Since there’s only one utility company serving my neighborhood, and the neighbors wouldn’t appreciate me installing a solar farm in the courtyard (not that solar panels do much good up here), I didn’t have a choice. Through companies like TerraPass, I can choose to pay a little extra for what I want, namely, clean energy for my home.

  9. dangerouspenguin - May 17, 2007

    Hmm…the point I was trying to make has been missed, I think. I *know* that its ridiculous to haul water bottles from Mexico to Canada, but the recycling propaganda did a good job on me back in the 80s. Let’s hope the climate change propaganda will do a good job on today’s youth. That’s all I was trying to say.
    As for carbon usage on our trip? We didn’t fly. I take transit or my bike everywhere in normal life. Our terrapass covered the kilometers and was prominently displayed on the tailgate of our 4 cylinder, 2WD Tacoma (which we own because we need a truck on our small organic farm). All in all, I don’t feel too guilty.

  10. Stephanie - May 24, 2007

    Way to go dangerouspenguin!!! I would do the same thing. It is hard to get into the hbbit of recycling and for some older it is even harder. I agree with the propaganda side of it totally. It is true that if everyone would just do their share eventually more and more people will catch on and a higher demand for earth friendly products, and efforts will become widely available. Maybe even so much that the cost of those amenities will lower;)