I was talking to an administrative director at Greenback recently. He's a pretty good guy, and he wants to help the U out with the "whole sustainability thing", but to his mind a large portion of that boils down to "recycle more". What I really wanted to say was "no, recycle less! Recycling more is the least good of the non-bad options!" It would just have confused (and probably irritated him), so I held back.
To most folks, recycling is an alternative to trashing. A "sustainable" alternative. The good behavior. The environmentally responsible thing to do.
To most institutions (Greenback included), recycling is a major form of "waste diversion". Which, of course, is just a larger-scale version of the same "alternative to trashing" image.
But while higher recycling or diversion rates are generally better than low ones, that "conventional wisdom" kind of misses the point. Recycling is good to the extent that it reduces the solid waste stream -- converts a portion of what otherwise would have been waste into a resource. But an individual or an institution can only reduce its solid waste output just so much without also reducing its solid stuff consumption. Think about it -- however much stuff you buy, it all goes one of three places: waste, recycling, or storage. For most of us, storage capacity is (in practical terms) fixed, so once that fills up the sum of waste out and recycling out is pretty much equal to the amount of stuff consumed. We want to recycle as much of what we buy as possible, but we should want more to reduce the amount of stuff that we buy. As individuals. As institutions.
In theory, a sustainable goods economy might be a closed loop where all the new stuff we buy is made from old stuff we recycle. In practice, that can never really happen. Some materials, it's true, can by recycled virtually forever -- glass and many metals come immediately to mind. But most other materials have a limit to the number of times they can be recycled -- plastics, paper and fibers are good examples. So for paper, for example, there will always be a need for some consumption of virgin feedstock -- some supply of "new" paper to constantly top off the stock of recyclable-recycling-recycled paper constantly in use. In truth, some continuing increment to the stocks of metals and glass will also be needed, if only to make up for happenstantial losses.
Even envisioning such a relative balance of personal/institutional inputs and outputs implies the need to stop consuming stuff that can't be recycled. And, in the final analysis, it's this reduction in consumption -- cease buying the worst stuff, and buy less of even the less-worse stuff -- that brings the real benefits, both social and environmental. As a result, recycling volumes might (probably would) go down, but solid waste volumes and consumption volumes would go down more.
Of course, "consume less" is anathema to mainstream economists, the business press, and American society as a whole. It's a mathematical necessity to anyone who takes the term "sustainability" literally. Sooner or later (probably sooner) it's going to be a physical necessity as well. But Greenback (like pretty much every other school) markets itself in large part on the promise of higher income enabling greater material consumption which is the definition of "higher standard of living" and equated with greater life satisfaction. It's a chain of fallacy, of course. But from an institutional perspective it's seen as a necessary chain of fallacy.
So maybe recycling more -- the least good of all the non-bad options -- is the most I can hope for. For now.