Traditional disposal is the most striking example of modern flushing.
Recycling is advocated as a strategy aimed at creating a cleaner and healthier world for those companies that have benefited the most from waste-based economies. In fact, this is just a cover for continuing business as usual. Corporations maintain recycling efficiency through empty “liability obligations” to avoid exploring the wider negative effects that their products and business models have caused.
However, recycling is useful on the one hand – it helps us avoid responsibility for our rampant and unsustainable consumption.
What problem are we trying to solve?
Now is the time to challenge our core assumptions about the global waste management and recycling industry. After nearly 50 years of existence, recycling has been a complete failure to prevent an environmental and social disaster. This does not help cool the warming of the planet and does not prevent the destruction of ecosystems and the loss of biodiversity.
This house of cards begins to crumble. Over the past two years, several end markets for materials that are considered easily recyclable – plastics, glass, cardboard, and even low-grade aluminum – have evaporated. China’s recent ban on the import of foreign waste has highlighted the volatility of our materials management markets. Other countries followed China’s example: Malaysia and the Philippines sent thousands of tons of waste back to the United States, Britain, and Canada, destroying any illusion of a useful blue bin.
After nearly 50 years of existence, recycling has been a complete failure to prevent an environmental and social disaster.
As a result, many cities do not know what to do with the waste that their citizens create. US municipalities have suspended or phased out their recycling programs in favor of perpetual storage, disposal, and incineration.
Why is this happening? Simply put, global recycling markets relied on aggressive and insincere marketing, exploitative labor practices, and global energy prices to stay competitive. Under the threat of excessive simplification, processing may not work if the production of goods from primary materials is more profitable than recycled. As Steve Wilson of the Story of Stuff said: “… if you want to stop the plastic getting into the ocean in Indonesia, you need to ban cracking in the Ohio River Valley.” A low oil price coupled with a tougher international material management policy means that inefficient refining markets will exist if systemic changes do not occur.
Recycling is not only completely ineffective, but also directly contributes to the deterioration of the health status of the population around the world and the associated social injustice.
Where recycling, aggregation, separation and reconstruction of materials and products are carried out mainly using cheap labor in China and Southeast Asia. This workforce is constantly exposed to hazardous working conditions and toxic chemicals for a minimal fee. The inequities of the exploitative labor system, which provides a global system of waste management and recycling, are rarely (if ever) included in the equation. As a result, the true value of our current material management system is hidden.
Even in the United States, labor recycling conditions are bleak. During my inspection of the American Material Collection Plant (MRF), I was almost seriously injured by an improperly locked machine assembly, called a down-baler. The massive metal door of the car swung open from the kinetic power of an elephant as I stood in the nameless zone of the explosion. Fortunately, at the moment when a piece of metal weighing 1,000 pounds began to swing, I took half a step back and in the end I felt only the wind on my face. I was fortunate enough to leave physically unscathed, and I have the honor to no longer test such means for life.
Not everyone has the opportunity to refuse. The world’s leading waste management corporations purposefully transfer these environmental and social risks from their balance sheet to those that they cannot afford to refuse, which reminds us of the refusal of food brands to take responsibility for the factory farms supplying their packaging operations. The backbone of the processing industry is an opaque, unfair labor system that constantly exposes the global workforce and its communities to dangerous and toxic conditions. This alone should cast doubt on its effectiveness.
Perhaps most importantly, recycling has become a distraction during the urgent need for collective urgency and concentration. He continues to perpetuate the facade that society can consume abandoned and without consequences. The IPCC estimates that we have 10-30 years to act if we want to prevent the worst-case scenarios of global climate change and biodiversity loss. At this point, when it comes to business, waste management initiatives continue to divert a disproportionate amount of public goodwill, entrepreneurial focus and investment from meaningful decisions.
We need to implement strategies and invest in existing technologies that can help address the root causes of climate change and pollution. These solutions fit into two buckets: circular design and green chemistry.
Let’s not ponder the words – we have problems with consumption. We must significantly reduce the amount of materials and products that we consume, thanks to design and training, and get rid of our dependence on the blue basket. Products should be designed for durability, extended disassembly and reuse, not obsolescence. Additional policies should protect consumers’ right to repair, while establishing extended producer responsibility.
As a society, we need to escape from the purchase of goods and adopt business models that contribute to the wider use of resources, their reuse and reorganization. Product manufacturers can draw inspiration from the natural world to create products designed to optimize human happiness and environmental health using resources such as the IDEO Circular Design Guide and the Cradle-to-Cradle MBDC protocol. Several organizations put these ideas into practice, including Metabolic, Fashion for Good, and ReFED. Technologies such as Algramo, Vessel, Yerdle, Truman’s and Loop can help consumers take part in this journey.
Recycling materials that are toxic in nature means that we simply give the hazardous substance another chance to poison the environment and our bodies. We should strive to produce products from safer materials using non-hazardous chemicals and recovery processes.
Bioeconomics aims to use chemicals and materials that can be easily found in nature, improve the condition of ecosystems in their places of production and eliminate toxic pollutants, regardless of how materials and products are handled at the end of use. Organizations like GC3, Materiom, SaferMade and The Biomimicry Institute are leading the transition.
Waste of time
Unfortunately, corporate recycling strategies and much more continue to dominate corporate responsibility strategies. It’s less risky to double processing than investing in the strategies outlined above.
The Plastic Waste End Alliance, an NGO created by leading petrochemical producers in 2018, is an example of how an organization is stirring up water. The organization will strive for anything other than those solutions that are aimed at the root cause. They promise to clean the beaches at the same time, and key players – including Shell, ExxonMobil and SABIC – are announcing plans to build several billion dollars worth of new polyethylene and petrochemical plants that produce low-cost toxic products that are washed on the same beaches.
Organizations that benefit from recycling business models face a serious economic conflict of interest when moving to a fundamentally different system that promotes circular design and environmental chemistry. Their shareholders will not allow this, so they will continue to invest in the trade in lies, which is modern processing.
Unfortunately, we have no time left to do business as usual. If we add to this discussion the urgency that our polluted ecosystems require of us, it becomes obvious that it is completely absurd to squeeze efficiency out of an inefficient and exploiting system that processes.
To borrow from Ellen MacArthur, one of the most prominent voices in the circular economy: “We’re not going to get out of this.”
Let’s stop acting like that.