ONCE A YEAR OR SO, it’s my turn to run recycling day for our tiny town. Saturday morning, 9 to 12, a steady stream of people show up to sort out their plastics (No. 1, No. 2, etc.), their corrugated cardboard (flattened, please), their glass (and their returnable glass, which goes to benefit the elementary school), their Styrofoam peanuts, their paper, their cans. It’s quite satisfying – everything in its place.

But it’s also kind of disturbing, this waste stream. For one, a town of 550 sure generates a lot – a trailer load every couple of weeks. Sometimes you have to put a kid into the bin and tell her to jump up and down so the lid can close.

More than that, though, so much of it seems utterly unnecessary. Not just waste, but wasteful. Plastic water bottles, one after another – 80 million of them get tossed every day. The ones I’m stomping down are being “recycled,” but so what? In a country where almost everyone has access to clean drinking water, they define waste to begin with. I mean, you don’t have a mug? In fact, once you start thinking about it, the category of “waste” begins to expand, until it includes an alarming percentage of our economy. Let’s do some intellectual sorting:

There’s old-fashioned waste, the dangerous, sooty kind. You’re making something useful, but you’re not using the latest technology, and so you’re spewing: particulates into the air, or maybe sewage into the water. You wish to keep doing it, because it’s cheap, and you block any regulation that might interfere with your right to spew. This is the kind of waste that’s easy to attack; it’s obvious and obnoxious and a lot of it falls under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and so on. There’s actually less of this kind of waste than there used to be – that’s why we can swim in most of our rivers again.

There’s waste that comes from everything operating as it should, only too much so. If carbon monoxide (carbon with one oxygen atom) exemplifies pollution of the first type, then carbon dioxide (carbon with two oxygen atoms) typifies the second. Carbon monoxide poisons you in your garage and turns Beijing’s air brown, but if you put a catalytic converter on your tailpipe it all but disappears. Carbon dioxide doesn’t do anything to you directly – a clean-burning engine used to be defined as one that released only CO2 and water vapor – but in sufficient quantity it melts the ice caps, converts grassland into desert, and turns every coastal city into New Orleans.

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