It's time to trash recycling
Our waste management practices are distractions from our main problem: too much stuff. But alternatives exist.
Traditional recycling is the greatest example of modern-day greenwashing.
Recycling is championed as the strategy to enable a cleaner, healthier world by those businesses that have profited the most from the extractive, take-make-waste economy. In reality, it is merely a cover to continue business as usual. Corporations espouse the efficacy of recycling via hollow "responsibility commitments" in order to avoid examination of the broader negative consequences that their products and business models have wrought.
Recycling is good for one thing, though — it helps us dodge the responsibility of our rampant and unsustainable consumption.
What problem are we trying to solve?
Now is the time to challenge our core assumptions of the global waste management and recycling industry. After nearly 50 years of existence, recycling has proven to be an utter failure at staving off environmental and social catastrophe. It neither helps cool a warming planet nor averts ecosystem destruction and biodiversity loss.
This house of cards is beginning to tumble. In the past two years, several end markets for materials thought to be readily recyclable — plastics, glass, cardboard even low-quality aluminum — have evaporated. China’s recent ban on foreign waste imports places the unsustainability of our material management markets front and center. Other countries have followed China’s lead: Malaysia and the Philippines shipped thousands of tons of waste back to the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, shattering any illusion of the useful blue bin.
Why is this happening? Simply put, the global recycling markets have relied on aggressive and disingenuous marketing, exploitative labor practices and global energy prices to remain competitive. At risk of oversimplification, recycling cannot work if it is more profitable to produce goods from virgin materials than recycled ones. As Stiv Wilson from the Story of Stuff put it: "…if you want to stop plastic going into the ocean in Indonesia, you need to ban fracking in the Ohio River Valley." The low price of petroleum, coupled with stricter international material management policies, means that ineffective recycling markets are here to stay unless systemic change occurs.
Where recycling is conducted, the aggregation, separation and reconstruction of materials and products is primarily done using low-cost labor in China and Southeast Asia. This workforce is consistently exposed to dangerous working conditions and toxic chemicals for minimal pay. The injustices of the exploitative labor system that powers the global waste and recycling system are rarely (if ever) factored into the equation. The result is that the true cost of our current material management system is hidden.
Even in the United States, recycling workforce conditions are bleak. During my time inspecting a U.S. material recovery facility (MRF), I was almost severely injured by an improperly locked out piece of machinery called a downstroke baler. The machine’s massive metal door burst open with the kinetic force of an elephant as I was standing in an unmarked blast zone. Luckily, just as the 1,000-pound hunk of metal started to swing, I took a half a step back and ended up only feeling wind on my face. I was lucky to come away physically unscathed and am privileged to no longer inspect such facilities for a living.
Not everyone has the ability to opt out. The top global waste management corporations purposefully shift these environmental and social risks off their balance sheet to those that cannot afford to say no, a practice reminiscent of food brands’ refusal to take responsibility for the factory farms that supply their packing operations. The recycling industry’s foundation has been built on an opaque, inequitable labor system that consistently exposes a global work force and its communities to dangerous and toxic conditions. This alone should call into question its efficacy.
Perhaps most important, recycling has become a distraction during a time in desperate need of collective urgency and focus. It continues to perpetuate the façade that society can consume with abandon and without consequence. The IPCC estimates we have 10 to 30 years to act if we are to stave off the worst scenarios of global climate change and biodiversity loss. In this all-hands-on-deck moment, recycling initiatives continue to siphon a disproportionate amount of public goodwill, entrepreneurial focus and investment dollars away from meaningful solutions.
We need to implement strategies and invest in existing technologies that can help solve the root causes of climate change and pollution. These solutions fit into two buckets: circular design and green chemistry.
Let’s not mince words — we have a consumption problem. We must dramatically reduce the number of materials and products we consume through design and education and rid ourselves of our reliance on the blue bin. Products should be designed for longevity, advanced disassembly and reuse rather than obsolescence. Complementary policies need to protect a consumers’ right to repair while enacting attainable extended producer responsibility.
As a society, we need to untether happiness from the act of purchasing goods and embrace business models that promote higher resource use, reuse and true repurposing. Product manufacturers can take inspiration from the natural world to create products designed to optimize for human happiness and environmental health using resources such as IDEO’s Circular Design Guide and MBDC’s Cradle-to-Cradle protocol. Several organizations are putting these ideas into practice including Metabolic, Fashion for Good and ReFED. Technologies such as Algramo, Vessel, Yerdle, Truman’s and Loop can help consumers participate in this journey as well.
Recycling materials that are inherently toxic means that we’re simply giving a dangerous substance another chance to poison the environment and our bodies. We must endeavor to make products from safer materials using non-hazardous chemicals and restorative manufacturing processes.
The "bio-economy" aims to make use of chemicals and materials that are readily found in nature, improve ecosystem health where production occurs, and eliminate toxic pollutants regardless of how materials and products are managed at end of use. Organizations such as GC3, Materiom, SaferMade and The Biomimicry Institute are leading the transition.
Unfortunately, corporate responsibility strategies continue to be dominated by traditional recycling initiatives and little else. It is less risky to double down on recycling rather than invest in the strategies outlined above.
The Alliance to End Plastic Waste, an NGO created by the major petrochemical manufacturers in 2018, is an example of how organizations are muddying the waters. The organization will commit to anything other than those solutions that target the root causality. They're simultaneously promising beach cleanups, while its key members — including Shell, ExxonMobil and SABIC — announce plans to build new multi-billion-dollar polyethylene and petrochemical plants that produce the inexpensive, toxic products that wash up on those same beaches.
The organizations that profit from exploitative recycling business models have a massive economic conflict of interest in shifting toward a fundamentally different system that promotes circular design and green chemistry. Their shareholders will not allow it, so they’ll continue investing in peddling the lie that is modern day recycling.
Unfortunately, we have run out of time to entertain business as usual. If we infuse this discussion with the urgency that our polluted ecosystems demand of us, it becomes apparent that squeezing efficiency from the ineffective and exploitative system that is recycling is utterly absurd.
To borrow from Ellen MacArthur, one of the most prominent voices in the circular economy: "We’re not going to recycle our way out of this."
Let’s stop acting like it.