And now a word from the boycott/green-consumerism environmentalists: “If you buy only recycled goods, you’ll be saving 1000s of trees.” Or the excited elementary school children who have just read 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth (cough, me when I was 10): “Hey Mom, if we just put a brick in the toilet we’ll be saving hundreds of gallons of water a year!”
People who are into recycling accomplish a lot of great things, and they seem, by and large, to be a pretty intelligent group. But I don’t like the rhetoric I often hear used in the name of recycling. Save save save save save save save save. Save!
Right now I’m reading a book called Garbage Land by Elizabeth Roythe. In it, Roythe attempts to follow her garbage to its final resting place. The chapter I am currently reading is about paper recycling, and seeing the word “save” come up again and again, usually in reference to the goals of recycling firms, I started trying to articulate my allergy to the recycling-related use of the word.
“The Staten Island plant claimed to save 13,500 trees a day,” was one example. So what exactly does it mean to save 13,500 trees a day? I sat back in my chair and thought about it.
I imagined a clear cut being executed in a lush old-growth forest on the west coast. A cell phone rings. A man in a dirty yellow hard hat answers it. I can’t hear what he’s saying for all the bulldozers and chainsaws, but he is nodding, legs inside smudged jeans, chest inside a saw-dust speckled flannel shirt.
When he hangs up he runs over to a group of his colleagues. They are atop yellow bulldozers, and they are heading toward a new group of trees. He waves his hands, arms “X”s and “V”s above his head. They lean toward him, listening, and he has to yell to be heard. “The recycling plant called,” they hear him telling them. “They’ve recycled enough paper today to save 13,500 of these trees! Let’s cut out early and go get a drink.”
The men smile and a few cheer—perhaps more for the half day than the saved trees, but what the hell. “Thank god for those recycling plants,” they say as they clink glasses later that night. “Now all those beautiful old trees can stay right where they are.”
End scene. Return to reality. This has probably never been the case. The virgin paper-making companies (“virgin” paper is paper that is made from raw wood pulp) and the recycled paper-making companies aren’t, as far as I know, in cohoots. Theoretically, if recycled paper is taking up part of the paper market, that is a part of the paper market the virgin paper companies don’t have. Theoretically, this means that less trees are being cut down. (Or from another perspective: Are being cut down more slowly.)
Statistics (which I have never been keen on trusting) tell another story. “While residential and commercial paper-recycling rates across the United States have steadily increased—from 30 percent in 1988, when the American Forest & Paper Association started to keep track, to 50.3 percent in 2002—consumption of virgin paper has steadily risen as well. Over the past fifty years, according to the independent market research firm Nina Hunter, worldwide use of virgin paper has increased sixfold, with the average US office worker running through more than ten thousand sheets of printing and copying paper per year” (Royte, 137).
What this statistic says to me, assuming that it is accurate, is that the problem lies with our paper-use habits, and not with the distribution of power in the paper-making industry, be it virgin or recycled.
There is another problem with my story. Paper is not usually made from forest-grown trees like those in the clear cut I imagined. These days most paper companies get their wood pulp from tree-farm trees, grown in rows, sprayed with pesticides to keep things simple (and cheap). Clear cuts are usually about freeing up property for buildings and cattle (the trees are then sold to lumber companies, or, in the cases when that isn’t profitable, slashed and burned, and I don’t mean in somebody’s wood stove). What all of this means is that if less virgin paper was being made, it would mean that less trees were being planted (on tree farms), not that forests were being saved. Oh what twisted webs we weave!
But let’s return to the subject of rhetoric. The word “save” has heavy connotations. Of rescue. Of heroes. Of lives that, at the end of the chapter, don’t have to end right now after all. I imagine it is a word often chosen to grace the pages of recycling propaganda to convince potential participants that recycling is empowering, that they, with their two tiny hands, can prevent some of the death going on in the world all around them at the hands of industry. Maybe we can. And maybe we can’t. But let’s call it what it is.
By saying that we are saving a tree from being cut down or saving space in the landfill seems to imply that those actions (the cutting, the landfilling) are somehow inevitable. But it is not inevitable that humans cut down as many trees as they do, and it is not inevitable that humans build and fill landfills. If we were honest, with ourselves and each other, we might say it this way “Recycling is probably keeping a lot of things out of the landfill this time around, and it is probably more responsible than buying new, but it is our very desire for these products that has started this cycle, and recycling is only keeping objects out of the trash this time.”
Let’s be honest and admit that when we say “save,” we usually mean “use more slowly.” “Save” might imply that we intended to continue to protect the trees/water/resources we thought better left alone when we were packing up the recycling, instead of just buying them at a later date which, and this may also be hard to admit, is what most of us end up doing. Me included.
I do not mean to say that we should not recycle. In this context, recycling is the responsible thing to do. I am saying that I think we need to change the entire context.
As a child I devoured 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth. As an adult, I find myself appreciating the the satirical honesty in the title of a graphic novel that I am particularly fond of, a title that pokes fun of the wide-eyed optimism of the book that inspired my earliest environmental actions: As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial.