Does anyone actually doubt that smoking is bad for you? I don’t really think so. I know people who smoke, and, while some have no interest in quitting, I don’t think any would defend it as a healthy lifestyle choice. In fact, if pressed on why they do it, most would likely begin a sentence with “It’s no worse than…” My point is not to single out people with one vice as opposed to another. We likely all do something that we can readily acknowledge is less than ideal behavior. We smoke. We overeat. We text and drive. The problem is not that we don’t know better. The problem is that changing minds is easier than changing habits.
Recycling of plastic bottles was down last year according to a recent report from the Association of Plastic Recyclers and the American Chemistry Council. It wasn’t down by much—about .5 % or so. It means we are still recycling about a third of the plastic bottles we produce. I don’t think the dip means recycling is finished or that next year won’t be better. But I do think it means it will take more than knowledge alone to change people’s behavior. It will take a substitute.
Consider that plastic itself is a substitute. Its development has taken it through varying periods in which it took the place of wood, metal, ceramic, rubber—things that were more scarce, more expensive or harder to work with. In other words, plastic preserved more scarce materials, and, in doing so, conserved those resources for posterity, or for other more valuable uses. Ultimately, its utility was so great that it became a material in its own right, with less and less imitation required. And thank goodness. Medical uses alone make plastic an indispensable part of our lives.
But times change. The relative costs of resources fluctuate. And our estimation of the downsides associated with a particular product, or a particular use, evolve with our priorities as a society. When that happens, of course we should point out those concerns and educate ourselves and others. But we also need to introduce substitutes whose costs, both material and intangible, are more compatible with our goals.
I am confident that every reader here knows how important it is to recycle, and all the places those plastic bottles end up when we don’t: in landfills, on beaches, in the middle of the ocean. It’s a problem that maters to all of us. So let’s attack it with more than one strategy. Don’t abandon recycling. In fact, keep working hard to drive those rates up. There is plenty of room to get better.
But while you’re at it, press the producers of the products you enjoy to give you substitutes. A good substitute will give you the same flexibility and usability of plastic, while vastly improving upon its environmental impact. Its goal should be to return to the earth as a nutrient and not an invader. It should match the habits of people the world over. Most minds have already been changed. Now we just need to offer A Refreshing Alternative.