Recycling is not Circular

Alexandre Lemille
Aug 1, 2018 · 4 min read

The harsh reality of recycling: it slows down genuine innovations.

While I saw a lot of debates online on the World Recycling Day 2018, I thought I would write these few lines to clarify what recycling really is and how we can learn from such a day with the objective to advance faster towards genuine solutions.

Recycling is a hot topic

Recycling has become a hot topic nowadays. Our planet is in bad shape, therefore we need to be responsible and recycle. This is a great thing to change mentalities and I concur to this latter approach. We need to reconnect people with their wider environmental responsibilities, not because they should be responsible, but because they will be happier.

Recycling rates top the European Commission Circular Economy Package (2016) and was the main topic during the European Circular Economy Stakeholder Conference last February 20th and 21st 2018. Again this is great, but this is not what we are asking our Circular Economy leaders to achieve!

We need to lead the way to a new economic world, not to use concepts from the past.

Recycling rates will increase anyway!

Easing recycling processes so they happen is a good thing, but this has to be done outside of a Circular Economy framework. Given our current consumption patterns, recycling is an acceptable short-term option. It will occur anyway and is bound to increase in the coming years. Most of our goods are and will be consumed (one-off use) and disposed of just few days after purchasing them. And it will be difficult to change these patterns in the short-term although we should endeavor ourselves to do so.

Thus the future of recycling will be rosy anyway.

Recycling is downcycling

Recycling comes from our current linear economy consisting of extracting resources, transforming them into products, consuming or using them on a one-off basis, and then disposing of them. This is where recycling starts, from the stage of what we call ‘waste’ in a linear thinking approach — in opposition to a Circular Economy where there is no waste but unused resources.

Recycling is the second material stream of a linear economy. We reach the stage of waste and then decide what we will be doing with these goods that where never meant to be reused in the first place! In most cases, they are destroyed in mashed-up fragments. From these mashed-up fragments we make new products that will again be used once in most of the cases (since we are not asked to think in innovative ways here, we will just redo products to waste!). Waste material transformed in fragment leads to what we call downcycling. In downcycling, materials are always of lower quality and functionality than the original material. Most of the time, recycling does not value materials nor enhance them.

Lastly, recycling has a major challenge: it has never cope with the huge volumes of waste and will never achieve this in the future given the exponential trends.

In our linear thinking pattern, when we think about recycling, it is already too late to save energy or material. This is neither efficient nor effective.

Recycling slows down real innovations

Another aspect of recycling: it perpetuates the linear economy.

The more we recycle, the more we invest in recycling factories — currently investments are needed anyway given that we cannot stop recycling overnight -, the more we stay “linear”. We believe this is the best route to solve our problems, but it is not so. By staying in a recycling based economy, we will delay the need to shift gears into a truly circular economy — where resources are under control from the conception of the product sold as a service to the reuse and revalue of the very same service. In a genuine circular concept, there is no such thing as recycling. Why? Because we never end up at its stage. A stage generating high levels of material losses and requiring lots of energies to transform materials in mashed-up fragments. Fragments used to make a new product sold as product, in most scenario, as we would need to perpetuate those recycling loops.

We live in a world in dire needs of disruptive innovations. Creating feedback loops to a service provider, a redistributor or a remanufacturer is our circular priority, not recycling.

Recycling should be phased out at the earliest

Nevertheless recycling will still be there for decades to come given the gigantesque behavioral task before us when it comes to consumption. Yet, we have to start to think differently today. In this World Recycling Day 2018, future recycling rates being slowed down will only be good news.

Good news for the recyclers as they will then become material experts given their knowledge acquired on the quality and functionality of each and every material, material that would need to preserve in an economy that care about them.

Good news for the innovators, those addressing the smaller loops of the Circular Economy (reuse, repair, maintain, revalue, redistribute, remanufacture) as their work will be truly valued, at last.

Good news for us, taxpayers, as we will be guaranteed to live in a world where we do not pay twice our goods, at the time of purchase and at the time where we need to retreat them as waste.

Downwards recycling rates will only mean one thing: that we have truly entered a circular economy, that we are truly innovating and that we have started addressing the core issues of our consumption patterns, nothing else.

Alexandre Lemille

Written by

Advocate of a Circular Economy inclusive of a HumanSphere. “Highly Commended” in Leadership (World Economic Forum). Co-Founder: African Circular Economy Network

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