This pains me to write, but we all have to come to terms with the harsh reality that recycling validates waste and is a placebo to the complex waste crisis we have designed ourselves into. The things you are separating and putting in your recycling bins are probably not being recycled — and there’s a good chance that they are ending up somewhere you never imagined.
The current recycling crisis, where much of the diligently separated waste is not getting recycled, started in January 2018, when China announced that they would stop taking the world’s recycling through enacting their “National Sword” policy, which after more than 25 years of accepting two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste, suddenly banned the import of most plastics and other recyclable materials. This move not only stunned the world, but it also suddenly ripped the band-aid off that was holding together recycling as a viable solution to the single-use product proliferation around the world.
A year(ish) has passed since the new Chinese legislation came into effect, and their plastic imports have dropped by 99%, forcing the bulk of the global recyclables to be landfilled, incinerated, stockpiled on docks, cast out into the environment, or sent to other countries in the region. The latter is an equally unpopular move where many countries are now openly rejecting foreign trash. Experts now estimate that as much as 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced by 2030.
Recycling is a lovely idea when it works; in fact it’s a fundamental part of the circular economy, after, of course, sharing services, remanufacturing and repair. But like any system that displaces the responsibility somewhere out of sight, the externalities come back around to bite us all in the ass eventually. Ocean plastic waste is just one of the massive unintended consequences of relying on a quick fix, which then, in turn, reinforces the problem you are trying to solve. Systems thinking 101: the easy way out often leads back in, and there are often no quick fixes to complex problems. Recycling as a solution has reinforced the problem, and now we are dealing with a ‘frankenproblem’.
There has been an unfair reliance on consumers to be the responsible parties in dealing with the rise of disposable items. This is after producers and retailers have decided, without consultation, to wrap everything in plastic or replace reusables with disposables, normalizing the use of single use items by claiming them to be more hygienic and convenient than their reusable counterparts.
There are many coinciding aspects with how this further exacerbates the issue. For example, take the issue of contamination (one of the motivators for China to stop accepting the world’s trash): many everyday items that can’t be recycled are mixed in with recyclables. Or soiled materials, like a coffee cups or food packaging, get in with clean items and then make a mess of the rest. Then there is “wishcycling,” when people who are so conditioned to “do the right thing” that they toss whatever they wish could be recycled into the recycling bin, hoping that the trash fairy will ensure that it gets recaptured and magically turned into something useful again (another spoiler: they don’t). Furthermore, there is no universal recycling system, nor are there practices to teach an ever increasingly globalized world how to manage the complexity of this diverse practice. Nearly every state and country has different rules about how to recycle. In some places, it’s rinse and separate, in others it’s pop it all together (no need to rinse), and in others there are very detailed separation techniques for all the different types of plastics (identified by the small number at the base of the plastic item). So we have well-intentioned citizens getting lumped with the responsibility of deciphering what they should and should not do, whilst producers make add more complex materials to the system. Of course, there are just the lazy people too, who throw whatever wherever, further increasing the contamination rates, and this just makes the cost of recycling higher and results in more recyclables ending up being dumped in landfill.
Good intentioned and well-trained recyclers the world over are up in arms over the news reports that their hard work to get things into the right waste streams is amounting to nothing. And countries around the world are sending contaminated loads of recycling back to their parent countries — often wealthy, consuming nations like England, Canada, Australia, United States, Germany, and the rest of Europe. What we have actually created is a system of dumping a waste legacy on developing economies, as few rich countries have localized recycling facilities to coup with the amount of trash generated.
Consumer waste and recycling is a broken system that can’t be solved by just better recycling alone. Don’t get me wrong — recycling, remanufacturing, and repair all have their place in the transition to a circular and regenerative economy, but the reliance on a cure-all magic system that takes your old clamshell salad box and turns it into something just as valuable and useful is very far away from the reality of the current status quo. The undeniable issue is that we have created a disposable culture, and no amount of recycling will fix it. We need to remedy this illness at the root cause: producer-enforced disposability and the rapid increase of a throwaway culture being normal.
The systems failure: enforced disposability & a normalized throwaway culture
Single-use throwaway stuff permeates our day-to-day lives; it’s hard to avoid a coffee cup here, a plastic bag there, some wooden chopsticks at lunch, or that boxed take-out Thai food for dinner. While it’s most prevalent in the food industry — bottles, cups, lids, straws, grocery bags, produce bags, cutlery, produce wrap, and even those single-serve little sauce sachets — recently, design for disposability has moved into the medical, transport, and government sectors just as much. Over the last 60 years since the invention of cheap plastics, and even more so in the last 15 years, since the rise in the cult of busy, we have literally designed ourselves into a disposable society.
I have written about this before in this article on Systems Failures: Planned Obsolescence and Enforced Disposability: “Many of the goods and services we all rely on are created with the specific intent to lose value over time so that the consumer is stuck in an enforced consumption cycle, which increases value for the producer, but not for the customer nor the planet. And the cost of dealing with all of this reduced value stuff is placed back on the customer and local governments in the form of funding local waste management services.”
That’s right, the decision by a producer or even your local cafe to swap to disposables is then costing you money in either general waste (ie landfill fees) or recycling — both of which are costly aspects for local government to manage, so much so that many are ditching recycling all together! The cost of running these cumbersome recycling systems is also one of the reasons so much plastic waste is escaping into nature via the rivers and oceans of Southeast Asia, as the rapid transition to disposable plastics has not been met by an increase in municipal waste management services.
Recently I illustrated the extent of how we don’t see the costs of invisible things in this TEDx talk in Lisbon.
Around the world, daily options for obtaining basic needs such as food and water have dramatically changed over the last two decades, from a reusable user experiences to a crappy plastic or paper single-use disposable option. For many, it feels cheap because it is, and it feeds into the speedy convenience-fueled lifestyles that currently dominates societies. But the long-term costs are much greater than the immediate cost cutting and time-saving perceived benefits. I know there are many hygiene benefits and that the bendy plastic straw help many people in hospitals or who are disabled, I get that a disposable diaper is so much easier than washing them, but the extent of disposable single-use products is fundamentally unsustainable. And the really insidious issue here is that we are all paying for this! We pay for the cost of a disposable lifestyle embedded in the cost of these services and products, pay for it again through local taxes, and then we pay for it collectively in the loss of natural environments like beaches and waterways. We pay for it when 90% of table salt ends up filled with microplastics, and we will continue to pay for it as long as we continue to believe that there are no consequences to our disposable addictions.
As awareness about environmental issues associated with waste has risen, so too has the quick fix of “make it recyclable” as a solution to disposability. This has validated the production of single-use product streams. It has given way to the myth of ‘good’ (paper) and ‘bad’ (plastic) materials, which is so problematic as all materials have impacts, but it also has distracted us from the real issue all whilst more and more products and services have shifted to disposable from reusable.
What frustrates me to no end is that so many agents in the system just deflect responsibility to other parts. The plastic manufacturers say that the brand owners don’t want to change, and the brand owners blame the customers who then blame their governments who then blame the retails or the companies, and the cycle of blame continues. The reality is that plastic is a fantastic material for durable products, like reusable packaging systems that can be easily sterilized and reused. For example, I was on a flight recently where the food was provided in a thick plastic reusable bento box that had a salad and a snack in it, no plastic packaging, simple box wrap (although they did have disposable utensils…) but it was designed to be washed and reused over and over again. Of course washing has its own impacts too, but there is always a break-even point that can be factored into the systems design. The design solutions are actually really simple and the infrastructure interventions often financially viable, but the will to make change by societies’ institutions is significantly lacking. Where are all the pioneers who will help flip the script on our disposable world?
In the meantime, the burden of change comes down to you and me and our communities to refuse unless it’s reusable — to reject the system that has been thrust upon us by ditching disposables and demanding better products and services. Of course, this is difficult for many people, but each and every action you can take does send price signals through the economy. I recently heard of a large supermarket retailer trialing package-free dispensers because they saw a shift in the market, which is dictated by economic actions of people everyday. Simply put — we need a reusable revolution to get us out of the recycling mess.
The story of Recycling is the Story of Intentional Misdirection
Magicians use misdirection to direct their audience to see what they want them to see so that they can trick you into believing what they have done is really magic. This is very similar to the tactic used to get our society to a place where recycling symbolizes the height of environmentalism. Our living grandparents will laugh at the idea of waste; they will tell us that they most likely never even had a trash bin. What was life like before disposable plastic? It was a lot more washing up, by the ‘save and reuse’ practices that, just a few generations ago, were the norm quickly got designed out of the modern world with the advent of cheap disposable materials.
The big shift towards normalized disposability was initiated in 1970, when the first Earth Day was celebrated in the US, with this famous Keep America Beautiful ad: it features an Italian-American actor poised as a Native American who sheds a single tear as an oblivious passerby chucks a bag of trash out of his car window, into the street. Playing on people’s emotions, the ad then drills a message that we still have internalized today: “People start pollution. People can stop it.” It took two sentences to shift the blame and guilt on disposable items away from the producers of the new disposable economy and onto the citizens they had thrust it upon.
This ad and many others to come were funded by Keep America Beautiful (KAB), a front for a lobby group made up of representatives from the major beverage companies. The very strategic goal was to turn the attention away from the rising concern for the environment in a post-Vietnam era, as soda and milk bottles were swapped out from reusable ones (which cost the companies money in collecting and washing) to the disposable alternatives. The slight of hand trick was to make out as though the problem was not the calculated shift to normalizing disposability, but the acts of the individuals, who prior to this, were not used to non-biodegradable materials filling their daily lives.
It’s valuable to interject here a comparison of a recycling system that holds manufacturers accountable, rather than consumers. Such a system can be found in Germany, who is considered to have one of the best recycling systems in the world, in which it recycles nearly 70% of its waste. Many trace this success back to a package ordinance that was passed in 1991, in which it “required manufacturers to take responsibility for the recycling of their product packaging after a consumer was finished using it. This included transportation packaging, secondary packaging (i.e., the box around soda cans) and the primary packaging (i.e., the soda can).” Then, in 1996, the Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act was established, and it “applies to anyone that produces, markets or consumes goods and dictates that they are responsible for the materials’ reuse, recycling or environmentally sound disposal. This act particularly targeted producers and encouraged them to focus on one of three waste management strategies: waste avoidance, waste recovery and environmentally compatible disposal.”
The contrast in policy and in recycling success rates here further solidifies that manufacturers should be held accountable for packaging and that the solution is sustainable, circular design.
Redesigning systems: what happens now?
Now that China is no longer accepting the world’s recycling waste, we need to have more efficient localized recycling systems in places that help to close the loop and bring about the transition to the circular economy. The challenge is how can you help make that happen? Additionally, closed loop service provision systems like the recently launched Loop, will help dramatically eliminate single use packaging at least.
We are always finding ways to help people make positive change at the UnSchool and overcoming the inertia that often seeps in when problems of this magnitude are presented. So, here are some really good first steps you can start with. Individual lifestyle swaps: get some small wins under your belt to motivate you and influence others around you, by refusing single-use, taking your own, asking for reusables, or refusing to buy something. This has positive ripple effects, as the more people who see a new practice, the more normal it becomes in society at large. It might seem futile, but bigger systemic impacts come through the regular consumption choices we make everyday. Look also at what you can do it your professional life by letting your workplace know you want to help them swap from disposables to reusables. Enough people doing this in the world at large will redesign the normalization habits of hyper-disposability so that it goes out with the trash.
Want to get started on designing for a circular future? You can download our FREE Post Disposable Activation Kit, a set of free tools that we designed to help you activate your leadership and make lifestyle shifts for a post disposable future, read my book on circular systems design, listen to this great podcast from the 99% Invisible, or come to an in-person program at the UnSchool to activate your agency and learn the skills of creative changemaking.