The way we do recycling is rubbish. It is rubbish because the main goal has been to make money out of it.
In New Zealand, local councils thought they could make money by saving the costs of running their local landfills. Companies thought they could make money by collecting it up, doing a bit of rough sorting and shipping off the raw materials to somewhere else where labour is cheap and worker health and safety and environmental regulations next to non-existent. Places where there were plenty of people willing to clamber over the piles of imported ‘recyclables’ pulling out the stuff that is clean enough and easy enough to reprocess, for next to nothing in wages. And with no idea of the damage being done to their health, and the health of the environment they lived in, by exposure to many of the items in the piles.
The rest of us were just as ignorant. Putting stuff in the recycling bin was recycling and recycling was good. We were not told what happened to the stuff we threw in our recycling bins. That was commercially sensitive and none of our business. We didn’t know where it went, what it was turned into, or what condition it had to be in to be successfully recycled. We certainly didn’t know the ins and outs of the recycling process – how much workers were paid, what their working conditions were like, the amount of energy used in recycling and whether or not it was from a sustainable source. We didn’t know how much pollution was created in the recycling process, nor did we know how safe the finished product was for the environment.
Turns out recycling is not benign. Recycling done badly can cause as much damage to people and the planet as producing the stuff from raw materials. And we have been doing recycling very badly. Rather than reducing the amount of stuff produced, recycling can actually increase production and consumption of new goods. If it can be recycled we feel we can buy as much as we like.
Not so sadly, everything is changing. The countries we were sending our so-called recyclables to have woken up. For example, they have realised there is so much new plastic being produced that used plastic isn’t worth much. The ratio of rubbish to recyclables is too high. And they have been left with a large portion of the world’s rubbish with no safe way of disposing of it. They don’t want it anymore.
The official response so far has been to stockpile recyclables until another ‘market’ can be found. That won’t do. We need to forget about trying to make money out of recycling. People get paid a pitiful amount to make most of our new stuff. As long as recycled and repurposed goods have to compete with vast supplies of cheap new goods and materials, recycling and reusing are never going to be viable business ventures.
To be done properly, recycling needs lots of unbiased research and public funding. Recycling needs to be transparent and cooperative, not cloaked in commercial secrecy and competition. We don’t need markets, we need to put well recycled materials to good and safe use. Everyone working in recycling should have a living wage and safe and healthy working conditions, and the environment should be protected during the recycling process and not damaged by the end product.
Recycling is not about making money. Recycling is about conserving the Earth’s resources, protecting the people and the planet. Recycling is a public good. And maybe, just maybe, there is a lot of stuff we just shouldn’t be recycling at all e.g. plastic that breaks down into micro plastics and gets into the food chain. The environment could be much safer if it was consigned to contained landfills.
Of course, an astronomical number of landfills would be needed to take all this stuff – proof indeed that globally we are producing far too much stuff and it needs to be severely curtailed. Those inclined towards conspiracy theories could be forgiven for wondering if recycling, the way it is done at the moment, is not just a giant con to disguise overproduction and overconsumption? Continued economic growth, the mainstay of neoliberal capitalism, depends on both.