During the Second World War, the vast majority of Americans and Canadians were adamant that every effort possible be made to defeat the Nazis and Japanese. This included a major recycling effort in both nations, as well as the United Kingdom, where many items were collected—tin, steel, scrap metal, aluminum foil, rubber, paper, food waste, old records, etc. They were recycled to provide raw materials for the war effort in terms of manufacturing munitions, ships, vehicles, uniforms, etc. and to produce consumer goods.
This national effort, in the U.S., was promoted vigorously by all levels of government and via serious peer pressure. If one could not serve in the armed services, one could literally do their bit as individuals, families, and communities to ensure that those serving on the front lines had the weapons, ammunition, vehicles, ships. medical supplies and clothing needed to successfully wage the war.
In fact, both the Canadian and American governments had a series of posters to encourage recycling and recycling efforts. Other media venues were also employed to spread the word and the importance of recycling.
Needless to say, the initiatives were successful, but when the war ended, the desire to encourage recycling was no longer deemed necessary and society went back to its pre-war attitudes. Without question, a major opportunity was lost to fully institutionalize recycling and the infrastructure that was established to handle those materials. Today many people bring their own reusable shopping bags to the grocery store and proudly do so without a second thought, seeing it as an individual action to reduce plastic use and the implications of it. At first, many people balked at this and put up arguments in defense of not being forced to use reusable bags, but that opposition has seriously deflated over time and those who do insist on using single-use bags can easily sense the derision of those who do not. Peer pressure does work and plastic shopping bag consumption is declining.
Maximizing the Collection of Recyclables
Fast forward to today and the environmental crisis humanity is facing across the globe. We must do all we can as individuals, communities, industry, commercial enterprises, and government to recycle as much as we can and to re-use vast amount of materials—be they metal, oil, wood or agriculturally-based. This is doable and it may be costly at first before the recycling infrastructure is in a position to become profitable. But even if this possible, the necessity to maximize the collection of recyclables and process them domestically is essential. There is no need to ship these items to China—which is seriously cutting back on receiving them—and other countries, be it plastic or e-waste.
As we generate the recyclable items domestically, we have the obligation to deal with them domestically. There are a variety of ways to fund the collection and processing of recyclables, and no doubt the most effective measures being undertaken can be fully studied and implemented on a local, state, and national basis. There is no silver bullet solution, but there are tried and true, effective and efficient methods that can be emulated by many jurisdictions. The key is to set a specific timeline to implement such strategies, and while some may be different in scope and nature, the goals, objectives, and benchmarks would be similar. It is easy to envision reaching a point where towns, cities, and counties vie for the honor of having record recycling and re-use rates.
A Cradle-to-Grave Approach
What must also be considered is a cradle-to-grave approach when dealing with products. They should be designed to be easily recycled. Thus, for example, all plastic in various products and for packaging and containers for food and beverages should be required by law to be recyclable. The days of some plastics being unrecyclable have to end. This is also doable.
There will be costs to establish a comprehensive recycling system—from the collection to the manufacturing of new products and energy sources, but we also know that this will create a large number of jobs for collection, sorting, processing and manufacturing. This will bolster revenues for all levels of government via taxes on personal income, business revenues, and sales taxes, and to a certain extent, cover the funds that governments will invest to promote collection and processing. Additionally, consumers, commercial, industrial, institutional and governmental users of products that can be recycled, can help fund the recycling process by agreeing to cover a built-in fee to recycle the products they consume. We can easily produce the information on how a product is created and the implications of not recycling it.
Protect the Environment
The overall discussion on maximizing recycling efforts is not only necessary, but it must lead to concrete results. Effective recycling not only benefits those alive today and the global ecosystem as a whole, but future generations who will ask “knowing what you did then, why did you not act to leave us a better world?”
If we could effectively recycle during the Second World War, we can easily emulate those who considered it a patriotic duty to do their part to defeat fascism and stress the need to protect the environment as new duty for the benefit of all humanity—that is a very honorable goal and one that enhances the environmental impacts of individuals and countries as a whole. Americans and Canadians are well-known for the pragmatism and know-how, particularly in periods of crisis and when problem-solving is needed to secure immediate and long-term goals. The construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway is a prime example. Let’s tap into that spirit and fully exploit it.