The problem of recycling and the key to moving beyond it

Heidi Bischof
Jun 6, 2018 · 6 min read

Recycling isn’t working anymore. And that’s a good thing. Most of us have long held recycling as the foremost proof that we are doing our bit for the planet. But recent global events threatening the viability of recycling schemes in many countries are shaking things up and waste managers are scrambling to find solutions. So what does this mean for the ‘green’ cred of the average citizen? What to fall back on if we no longer have recycling? It’s the stuff of identity crises. But before we start panicking that our ecological footprints are going to blow out, we need a reality check. The good news is we don’t need new markets for our recycling. Because recycling is not the answer to our waste problem. The only way out of this mess is to start being more conscious of the stuff we buy and to reduce our overall waste.

The China issue

With the introduction of kerbside recycling schemes in the 1980s and early 90s most of us jumped on board and ever since we’ve happily sorted our waste and wheeled two bins to the kerb each week. Why? Because it means less waste is going to landfill. It’s being made into other stuff so it gets a second life. Because it means we’re doing our bit for the planet. But maybe you’ve started wondering whether your recycling actually does get recycled. Until recently the answer for the most part was ‘yes’. But now? Well maybe not. China has long been an importer of recyclable materials from countries like the US, UK and Australia. But most of us would likely be aware of the global recycling crisis that started in January this year, as a result of China’s decision to no longer accept much of the recycling we’ve been sending it due to high levels of contamination with non-recyclable materials. It has now tightened restrictions regarding the level of contamination it will accept, forcing countries to stockpile their recyclable materials, or send them to landfill, while they find alternative markets.

So how does recycling get contaminated? Often people put things in their recycling bin that shouldn’t go in there. The likes of greasy pizza boxes and food containers with food scraps in them, plastic bags, polystyrene foam and coffee cups, as well as more random things like Christmas lights and garden hoses. Some in the waste industry call this ‘hopeful’ recycling. We want things to be recyclable so we put them in our recycling bin. But this can cause major problems further down the line. If recycling becomes contaminated by too many non-recyclable items this could result in an entire shipment being rejected and sent to landfill instead. No one wants this to happen so if you’re not 100% sure then check what your local Council accepts. But regardless of how ‘pure’ we can get our recycling, educating people to recycle properly is not the solution to this issue. We actually need to rethink recycling.

The dark side of recycling and why it should be a last resort

Unfortunately the time has come to burst a big bubble. It’s been a long time coming, but the impetus is finally here. So here it is: recycling ≠ green. This does not mean we should stop recycling, but it does mean that we need to stop relying so heavily on it, especially when it comes to plastic. There are several reasons why a full recycling bin is NOT a good thing.

1. Recycling is a dirty business.

I recently discovered the recycling contractor for my local area has found other Asian markets to send my recycling to. So it won’t be stockpiled or sent to landfill. Phew, right? Actually no.

In his book Junkyard Planet, Adam Minter reveals dark and dirty truths about the global recycling trade that most of us probably have no idea about. In 2010 Wen’an County, China, was the heart of the global scrap plastics trade. A once picturesque agricultural area with abundant wildlife is now a dead landscape, its air and water choked with pollution; a result of processing the millions of tonnes of the world’s scrap plastic material (i.e. the plastic that you and I put in our recycling bin each week). Not to mention the social impacts, where workers and local residents exposed to hazardous chemicals suffer debilitating diseases. Minter talks of young villagers developing pulmonary fibrosis and paralysing strokes. But wasn’t recycling meant to save the planet?

Burning of plastic waste in China (Durand Patrick/ABACA/PA Photos via The Guardian)

And now that China is knocking us back we’re finding new markets where we can send our endless masses of plastic waste. New unspoiled environments hidden in some other remote part of Asia that we can destroy to perpetuate a toxic industry, just so we can keep believing we’re doing our bit to save the planet. Isn’t it time we all face the realities of this unsustainable industry and acknowledge the real problem: that we’re producing and consuming too much stuff?

2. Recycling perpetuates an unsustainable system. Having a recycling bin that gets collected each week helps us to justify buying more stuff. (The bin keeps getting collected so they must need my waste right? So I’d better keep buying stuff so I can keep filling it). We think we’re being green but our actions are just sustaining the production of packaging that is often single-use or excessive and usually made from plastic.

3. Design and manufacture of products is not optimised for recycling, so products and packaging made from mixed materials generally do not get recycled. E.g. the pump mechanism in a soap dispenser is made of several different materials including plastic and metal.

4. Recycling is a misleading term. We imagine our recycling being made into something else but that’s about as far as our thought process goes right? We don’t think about what it will become or where it will end up. Recycling of most things, especially plastic, is not circular. While aluminium can be recycled endlessly, plastic is usually down-cycled, which means it gets made into a lower-grade use and cannot be recycled again. So it eventually ends up in landfill.

5. There’s no point in recycling if there is no market for recycled products. How many of us buy products that are made from recycled materials? If we want to recycle then we need to be prepared to buy recycled too.

The Conscious Waste solution

I wasn’t actually too concerned about whether my Council found new recycling markets to send my waste to. Actually I’d prefer they didn’t because then it would force me to take more responsibility for the stuff I buy, and maybe it would force regulators to crack down on manufacturers as well — to stop the thoughtless over-packaging, and require them to use more sustainable materials than plastic.

While manufacturers need to take some responsibility, unfortunately thanks to politics and the influence of big plastic, this is a slow and fragmented process and we can’t rely on it. The quickest and most effective way for things to change is through consumer demand.

If we follow the principles of Conscious Waste and the new waste mantra, we can reduce the amount of waste we create. Firstly, REFLECT on our current habits, look at the waste we generate and think about the impacts of what we buy and then REFUSE what we don’t need, REDUCE what we do need, REUSE what we can’t refuse or reduce and lastly RETHINK recycling. With the exception of composting (the most sustainable and truly circular form of recycling), recycling needs to be our LAST resort. So maybe it’s time for us to shed the ‘green fluff’ identity we’ve held so dearly for the last three decades and embrace a new one based on doing something authentically green and far more worthwhile for the planet. And maybe one day, in the not-too-distant future, instead of wheeling two huge bins out to the kerb, we’ll all just be carrying two small buckets instead.

Heidi Bischof

Written by

Sustainability educator & activist, founder @ Earth Ethic