Conservation Participation Pyramid Scheme

By PSU EcoMerge Capstone - 10:50 PM

When we think about the impact of our actions, it can be helpful to approach the subject as a spectrum of social responsibility, rather than a black and white issue.  There are many solutions to our energy and resource issues, and it is a plain fact that not everyone will be able or willing to participate in all programs to the fullest extent.  We can, however, judge our choices in relation to those which go “a step beyond” our current actions, in accordance to what is available to us. 

One way to do this is to picture one’s participation as a pyramid, placing the least-favored options conservation-wise—those that little-to-no time or personal effort and have the same amount of effect—at the densely-populated bottom, while the optimally conservative route will likely be taken by fewer, and therefore sits at the top.  Like so:

It’s quite easy to see how this relates to one’s battery choices, from purchasing to consumption and disposal.  We should find it troubling if the percentages of batteries purchased vs. recharged or recycled conformed to the same pyramid.  If one extends good will towards its citizenry, one might assume that the majority of people in the United States are doing the civilized bare-minimum: Disposing of batteries in the garbage, becoming solid material waste in a landfill (reserving hope that the majority aren't doing the absolute minimum, such as dropping dead batteries in the roads or gutters).

Now for a little math: According to a 2008 estimate, over 15 billion batteries sold in US alone each year ( from three billion in 2003 (AZ DEQ).  To coincide, in 2002 the EPA estimated that around 350 million of all batteries purchased in the US were rechargeable—which seems like a lot—but amounts to roughly one in ten batteries during that period (EPA 2002).  In 2012, the Rechargeable Battery Recycling Corporation (now Call2Recycle, Inc.) reported that battery recycling collections in North America was a record 10 million pounds of batteries.  At an average of .68 ounces for an AA battery (Wikipedia, confirmed by author), this equates to 235 million batteries recycled during that year—only 1.5% of the total battery sales in 2008, which has surely risen.  Again, we are confronted with a one-in-ten situation now compounded, and it seems like we are dealing with the exact pyramid as above.

Now for some good news: In many respects, we are doing better!  For example, according to (2), over 95% of automobile batteries alone were recycled in 2009.  That’s more than nine out of ten!  And even better for the statistics is that car batteries are heavy, adding to the tonnage, as well as typically lead-acid batteries, which are the most environmentally necessary to recycle!

Of course, this could be seen as evidence that the legal infrastructure built around these programs is working, and nearly perfectly.  We might collectively further inquire: Is conservation under legal constraint real conservation?  This kind of self-interrogation is what brings one back to the pyramid of participation, to ask oneself: What is “a step beyond” the established bare-legal minimum?  This vein of questioning should not be thought of as a criticism of regulation, but of a perceived need or desire to regulate and be regulated in order for good things to come about. 

Under this read, the final “step beyond” into the pinnacle of the pyramid—the space labeled “Prevention”—can take on a double-meaning.  What is the object being prevented?  A politicized read of such regulation might see this as a step toward the “prevention of individual freedom”—amounting to “the right to dispose of [product x] as one chooses” in this case.  However, the kind of change we seek is a conscious integration of the role of the individual with their part in the whole of their environment, rather than an increased bottom-line based upon the ends justifying the means. 

Notice the reflexive and inclusive pronouns in that last sentence: their part, their environment.  

Let us draw a final analogy to give a little meaning to the word “their,” in order to fully understand “Prevention.”  One doesn’t brush one’s teeth in order to please one’s parents (though one might at first), or to impress or fool the dentist (though one might at first), nor to appease one’s significant other (though it might help).  Ultimately, one brushes their teeth because these are their teeth—and these are the only their teeth they have.

The batteries that one buys in the store and are built into devices aren’t artificial either!  They are manufactured, yes; but they are actually composed of natural and finite resources, the type of resources that, when they are gone, they’re gone gone.  Gone from the planet upon which one walks and from which one draws one’s entire breathing, feeding, and thinking existence.  Their existence; my existence; your existence.

In this sense, the top tier of the pyramid marked “Prevention” also means Preservation, and not just of resources, but of access.  If “a penny saved is a penny earned,” then buying rechargeable batteries and recycling old ones now is like a piggy-bank with compound interest which pays off immediately, and trends show that they will do so ten-fold in the near future.

Now that sounds like a pyramid scheme worth buying into.

AA Batteries, Wikipedia:
Teeth image (originally Monty Python's Flying Circus):

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