Kent Weakley via Shutterstock
Steam billows from the coal-fired Bend Power Plant, operated by Tampa Electric in Tampa, Florida (Kent Weakley via Shutterstock)

Every two weeks folks on my street haul their big blue barrel full of recyclables out to the curb for pickup. What happens to it after that? We used to assume it was recycled, but the sad truth, reported by WBUR this past week, is that the vast majority gets burned or ends up in a landfill.

It’s infuriating. Getting people to recycle was one of the big successes of the environmental movement in this country, and now we discover it’s mostly a sham? It’s like finding out that your hybrid car’s batteries aren’t that eco-friendly to create, and that reusable bags are only more environmentally friendly than single-use plastic bags if used enough times. Every time we think we’ve summoned Captain Planet in our day-to-day lives, it turns out we’re stuck with Hoggish Greedly and Looten Plunder instead. Again.

It’s frustratingly difficult for consumers to have much of an environmental impact. I stopped using flimsy plastic water bottles, replacing them with reusable glass ones, but I still have to run them through the dishwasher and use up water and power. My wife and I tried to find a toilet paper that had a less destructive origin than the super terrible Costco brand, and wound up settling on one that was sort of okay.

Not that any of this stops companies from making just as many plastic water bottles or rolls of bleached toilet paper from Canadian forests. All we can do is make choices that make it a little easier to sleep at night. That saves our conscience, but it doesn’t save the environment.

It seems that whenever individuals try to do good for our planet and the future of our species, we’re frustrated and thwarted by systems and forces beyond our control. As the planet warms and climate change moves from a potential problem into a full-blown crisis, the power of the individual to actually affect the environment seems to be getting smaller and smaller.

So what do we do? Doing nothing and pretending it’ll all go away is no longer an option, and individual actions don’t cut it anymore. We’re at risk of letting the future of our species — not to mention all of the other species — slip away.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to the brilliant moral clarity of Greta Thunberg, a teenager and climate activist who crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a solar-powered racing yacht to speak to Americans and the United Nations:

These are the children our generations have already failed through our inaction. When we are dead, they will live with the consequences of our inability to take the climate crisis seriously.

But if individuals can’t make a difference in our daily lives, who can?

Just 100 companies are responsible for a staggering 71% of carbon emissions. The list is topped by the sort of fossil fuel behemoths you’d expect, like ExxonMobil, BP, and Shell. We can ban all the plastic bags we like, but they’ll keep belching pollution into the atmosphere until we make them stop.

The people have only one real power in this country, and that’s the power of the vote. We need to use it to elect leaders who will act instead of pretending nothing is wrong. Maybe we could elect someone like the presidential candidate who said, when asked about plastic vs. paper straws and banning light bulbs:

“This is exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about. They want to be able to stir up a lot of controversy around your light bulbs, around your straws and around your cheeseburgers. When 70 percent of the pollution, of the carbon that we’re throwing into the air, comes from three industries.”

That was Elizabeth Warren. But I bet you knew that already.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

DISCLAIMER: The views, opinions, positions, or strategies expressed by the author are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the views, opinions, or positions of

Susan Bigelow

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.