One of the most popular items of domestic waste to be recycled is glass. Local authorities provide facilities for collecting bottles, which are then melted down and made into new bottles. Or crushed into rubble to help make new roads.
People who participate in these schemes doubtless feel virtuous. Some may go on to recycle other stuff, but some may feel that they’ve already done their bit to save the planet.
It is undoubtedly better to recycle glass than put it into landfill. (Environmentalists may not be so enthusiastic about new roads though.)
But recycling glass isn’t the best way of saving the planet. The raw materials for glass are relatively cheap and readily available. And we still need a huge amount of energy to melt down perfectly good bottles and make new bottles. Ideally we should be recycling the bottles.
We have a milkman who brings full bottles of milk to the door, and takes away the empties for washing and reuse. We have a local shop that refills empty (plastic) bottles of detergent. But these schemes used to be much more common, in the UK and elsewhere. When I was a child, there used to be a deposit on lemonade bottles, and we would collect them up and take them back to the shop. When I lived in Germany over twenty-five years ago, there was a deposit on the beer bottles and on the crate as well.
The principle of the deposit has been eroded – partly by the current fashion for recycling glass. The bottle manufacturers are of course delighted with the present arrangements. The last thing they want is for people to recycle bottles.
Is it conceivable that we could go back to recycling bottles instead of recycling glass? And perhaps plastic bottles as well? What would such a change require? Let me identify the general pattern and make four observations.
General Pattern. Once people have latched onto a particular solution to a problem, the solution becomes entrenched/institutionalized. Established interests then equate the solution with the original problem, and resist the discussion and development of alternative solutions.
Observation One: it probably isn't worth appealing to the better nature of the organizations that are invested in the status quo - such as the local authorities that have invested political credibility as well as significant resources in the present schemes.
Observation Two: any such proposal is likely to be hotly disputed - not just by people who have an obvious commercial stake in the present schemes, but by people who are simply reluctant to question their habits (schlepping bottles to the recycling bins) or change their beliefs. Some people have an inbuilt resistance to any proposal that appears to involve going back to the past.
Observation Three: there are undoubtedly some practical difficulties and complexities to overcome in implementing any such proposal. (For example, how do you sort out all the different bottles and jars, and send the beer bottles back to the brewery and the jamjars back to the jam factory?) Some of these may be solved by ingenuity and/or technology. However, some people have an inbuilt optimism that technology will overcome all difficulties, which is probably unrealistic.
Observation Four: Even if the total benefits of the change will outweigh the total costs (economic and environmental), there will be winners and losers. Some intervention may be necessary to redistribute costs, benefits and risks. For example, environmental taxes that
place the costs of waste onto the manufacturer, and provide incentives for factories to put their products into reusable containers.