It really shouldn’t be a choice. Both are noble goals. We are stewards of the resources of this planet and called to engage in justice. As we continue to become a more “globalized” world, everything gets so much more complicated.
Making the rounds in the news right now is the fact that for Western nations, it is up to 10 times less expensive to export our electronic waste to China for recycling than it is to process it with the rules and regulations we have for protecting our citizens from exposure to toxic substances. Here is one such article. That is of course, in part due to the fact that China does not have the same environmental or work-place regulations. It also is due in part to the fact that because of trade imbalances, the costs of shipping from the United States to China is much less than from China to the United States. But the article referenced states that much of the problem lies with those who find ways to break the rules. Bribes are amazingly inexpensive and very effective. In addition, the United States Congress has also not ratified the Basil Convention which would make the export of these materials illegal.
I first noticed the phenomenon in the late ’80s and early ’90s. The United States had moved away from “pull top” beverage cans, instead developing tabs which remained on the beverage can. Traveling to other nations, I noticed the overwhelming proliferation of “pull tabs” on the beverage containers. A little investigation found that there was no hesitation for US companies to sell old non-compliant machinery to others around the world. Regulations are inherently local.
The challenge I have is that if I recycle without knowing the route and final destination of the products I recycle, I may be contributing not only to environmental damage, but injustice toward people where there is no regulatory protection. Do I want to expose workers of any nation to lead dust? No. Do I want toxic chemicals to leach into groundwater anywhere? No. Am I willing to invest hours of investigation and dead ends to find out where products deposited with the local electronics recycling center finally are recycled? Not really.
And so, I like the minority of other U.S. citizens will carefully recycle my electronic equipment rather than simply disposing of it in the local landfill, and believe that I’m doing good. While trying to recycle, I may be doing a great injustice.
And that is saying nothing about the paper and plastic I recycle. Will it too take a slow boat to China for recycling? It just might.