I grew up at a time before there were computers and digital gadgets. I was in elementary school when the call to recycle plastic first emerged. Those were exciting days filled with the promise that we kids could save the world by convincing our families to get on the recycling train. We know how that turned out. We should learn a lesson from it, a lesson applicable to the push toward electronic vehicles (EVs).
Young people today have the same fervor for EVs that me and my peers had for curbside recycling bins. There is an almost unnatural belief among many that eliminating internal combustion engines in favor of electric motors will save the planet from the ravages of fossil fuels. And yet, it seems like we are recklessly pursuing a strategy that is going to come back to bite us in the same way plastics have.
Plastic is definitely a good thing. It is perhaps the best manufacturing material humanity has ever invented. So when I say it has come back to bite us, I only say that in the sense that we produce a lot of plastic we then thrown away unnecessarily. I certainly don’t think that recycling efforts will save the planet – because the planet isn’t in danger anyway – but waste is still waste. Throwing things away unnecessarily doesn’t make sense to me.
How did we get from where we were in the 1970s to where we are now? By not thinking plastic recycling through. We created a system that was destined to fail from the very start. We are only discovering that now.
Successfully recycling plastic is possible. Companies like Tennessee’s Seraphim Plastics do it every day. They make good money purchasing scrap industrial plastic and converting it into a regrind material. But commercial plastic recycling is built on a proven process proven. The same cannot be said for municipal recycling.
What does any of this have to do with the push toward EVs? Unfortunately, EVs are heading in the same direction. In the push to get rid of internal combustion engines, few people have thought about the ramifications of constantly mining the lithium required by EV batteries.
First of all, lithium is not a limitless resource. There is only so much of it in the world. Second, mining it is both expensive and environmentally destructive. We are ravaging acre after acre of land to satisfy our lithium lust. How is that any better for the planet than digging a hole and burying plastic in it?
It also seems like few people understand the demand EVs will put on our power generating capacity. Like it or not, solar and wind will never be able to produce enough electricity to keep millions of EVs on the road. Without electricity, those cars will not work. And without fossil fuels or nuclear, we will not be able to produce enough electricity.
We didn’t bother to slow down and think through the implications of plastic production and recycling. Let us not repeat the mistake with EVs. There is a valuable lesson to be learned in our failure to rein in plastic waste. That lesson is simple: blindly following an agenda without considering the long-term consequences creates much bigger problems.
Will we learn that lesson? I am not terribly confident. History suggests we are going to plunge into the EV utopia only to discover that it is more of a dystopia than anything else. If that makes me cynical, I will wear the badge proudly.