The failure of recycling

When I lived in a low economic area in Nairobi, someone once called through my door. It was a door that didn’t lock and had bars at the top so I appeared around the corner to see who was there. There stood a guy with a big smile enquiring whether I had rubbish. I didn’t have much. I lived simply with a mattress on the floor and my spinach from the street vendor along with some chapatis the women had taught me to make. I handed over my bag and a few shillings and spoke to him asking what he was doing.

He informed me that he picks up all the rubbish from this end of town and makes a small income that way. An entrepreneur, I thought, standing in where government services should have been. He proceeded to advise me he goes through all the rubbish first, sorting out anything he can sell; the easy pieces like plastic bottles and aluminium cans. Some of those I had seen turned into radios; quite a masterstroke. From there he takes the leftovers to the landfill site. At the dumpsite there are, what I later understood as waste-pickers, going through the rubbish looking for copper wires and metal pieces that can be sold for recycling.

It struck me that between a household removing their own items, composting food waste where they could and reusing, to the initial entrepreneur, to the landfill, that this rubbish was seeing a lot of action. It was being constantly filtered until it got to a point it couldn’t be. I realized that it was significantly more than what was happening in some other industrialized countries and how reliant we all are on services that take away our rubbish. Out of sight, out of mind. Of course, all these jobs come with highly problematic issues particularly at the landfill site – it’s a dangerous job for very little money. I have spent some time at landfills in developing countries to witness many families (including children) living there, without shoes, working tirelessly with each load every day, easily susceptible to disease and surrounded by toxic water and small fires for only a couple of dollars per day. In some places, workers were drunk off cheap red wine to make the stench bearable, the work doable. No-one should ever have to live like this. How much was being captured back into the system without any formal facilities or services astonished me at the time though. It’s starting to change a lot.

Cambodia Ek Phnom Landfill Dumb Battambang Siem Reap Phnom Penh Plastic Rubbish Waste

A landfill site in Cambodia being burned off whilst toxins seep into the waterways and rice fields. Most of the site was plastic items followed by garments. Photo by Lis Dingjan.

The story is very different in industrialized countries where waste is largely outsourced and rarely thought about. There is though a lot of significant difference between how countries appreciate their resources. In the Netherlands we had numerous bins for separating our aluminium, our papers and our glass that we could deliver for change. In London there were food waste bins being implemented for borough composting. In some cities of Japan they have no less than eight seperate recycling bins for separation. In Sweden, households recycle more than anybody else in the world. In America, Australia, Canada and the UK at large this does not happen and the recycling that does is often highly contaminated. In plenty of European countries it doesn’t either. Instead, as world trade agreements were being signed and China become the workshop of the world, we started outsourcing our problems. Each year we would ship billions of tons of ‘recycling’ rubbish for China to deal with. Each country still had their own landfills. There were still some local recycling plants. But much was shipped away. From a household bin, or a business waste facility, it was moved and never seen again.

Recycling is a marketing method to pass responsibility to consumers whilst bandaiding the real problem.

And then, early this year, China closed its doors. Years of contaminated recycling had taken its toll along with plenty of internal pollution problems. The contamination factor didn’t surprise me. In many countries that were sending huge amounts of waste overseas there is very little education from a young age on recycling. There is generally only one bin for recycling. Plastic & glass bottle exchange facilities are largely non-existent. And with that, and the complexity of recycling advice on products and difficulty recycling certain materials, everything seems to get thrown in one or the other. A part of this is definitely consumer behavior. There is no reason people in certain Asian & European countries can recycle way more than your average Canadian, American or Australian.

We’re slowly waking up to the realization that the products that we buy are made, largely, by finite resources or resources that required significant environmental destruction. When we buy those products, and then throw them away, we lose all the resources that were utilized – including the emissions in transport it took to stock on the shelves or be delivered to our front doors. Recycling doesn’t fix this. Nearly nowhere is recycling a net-zero solution. Recycling still requires an intense amount of resources. For some materials like glass, aluminium and paper this is nearly always worth it. Glass and aluminium can be infinitely recycled at the same quality. Plastic cannot. Whilst many plastics can’t be effectively recycled, the ones that can are not recycled as much as down-cycled. They can be down-cycled one to seven times, each time for a product that requires a lower standard of quality than the time before. At the end of this process, the new product usually ends up in landfill, in our oceans & waterways, or burned in an incinerator.

91% of plastic isn’t recycled. Annual plastic production is expected to triple by 2050.

This places our governments in a difficult position. Politicians are all too happy to reduce certain, individual items when it suits them; stop smoking so many cigarettes, turn off your lights, use less water, park your car at home more. This is limited. Governments actively encourage consumption; the purchase of an endless supply of more goods, bigger houses, or upgrades. The economy we live in is one where we must grow. One where the media reports in a panic if we have not grown again. During the recession, the government of Australia even gave most of their citizens a cash handout so they would go and spend it on goods at the store. That’s how desperate the country was. Please go and spend money, buy more, buy more. Governments don’t want you to reduce your consumption and they’re happy to dust their hands and blame the ‘recycling industry’ for not dealing with the impact this system causes.

It gets worse. To this day, the Keep America Beautiful campaign is still led by executives and boards at Dr. Pepper, Dow and the American Chemistry Council. They’re supported by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. All consumer beverage and plastics companies. Their message is for citizens to better dispose of their waste; the same waste these companies have created whilst they sue groups and governments over potential regulations of their production & expansion to recycling. Even if consumers did recycle all that waste, it’s also a matter of where it goes, something most consumers don’t have control over. For example, glass is infinitely recyclable and a precious resource. We can use it over and over again if it’s just separated out properly, lids removed and heads to a collection facility. In Western Australia and Victoria though, glass that enters recycling or is diverted from landfill is often used to make new roads. New roads where the life of the glass has just ended. It is highly unnecessary and a huge waste. In the Netherlands, there is instead a project underway to use plastics and turn them into interlocking bricks (like lego) for roads so that when a section needs repairing, the right bricks can simply be lifted instead of the wasteful way we currently dig up roads. In the same country, premium toilet paper is often used by consumers. At sewage plants across the nation, this paper is filtered for and, due the quality, used in new roads as a construction material.

Wish-cycling: the practice of throwing questionable items in the recycling bin, hoping they can somehow be recycled.

Meanwhile governments in industrialized nations, place blame squarely on developing countries, particularly Asia, never acknowledging that though much of the marine plastic pollution originates from Asia, the actual pollution part has come from US, EU, Canada and Australia. Developing companies are served a triple-whammy here. Plastic production has shifted to many Asian countries particularly China & Vietnam where the consequences of the chemical laden process and run off are suffered by the local communities. The plastic is then manufactured into products or shipped raw to industrialized nations who have not paid a price for the pollution (and exploited labor) that has occurred (nor the impact during shipping). The receiving countries then use those plastic products, nearly half being single-use, and throw them away only for them to often be shipped back to a developing country for them to deal with. And often the recyclables in China it appears were being burned or buried. It’s a vicious cycle.

When China shut its door, aforementioned industrialized nations didn’t start a major effort to kickstart their own fledgling recycling industries. Instead, they tried to offload their waste to different countries. Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam have all been targets. Three of the four are also imposing bans to not accept any more and numerous countries have been sending the rubbish arriving back to the country of origin.

If you really want to shock a society in an industrialized country, stop your local waste services for a month and see what happens.

It’s not only the government and the shareholders of companies. The advertising industry is also culpable. Marketing departments of large corporations serve shareholders, not customers. External advertising agencies who service large companies, are serving those same shareholders to grow the existing economy we’ve all tied ourselves too. Designers should be held accountable too. Marketing and design relies on exploiting biases and heuristics in people. Copywriters don’t get a free pass either. The point of many of these professions is to persuade people to buy. Persuade people to buy when they don’t need it. Persuade them to buy because of the status. Persuade them to fit in. Persuade them to feel worse about themselves and offer a solution. I don’t have the answers to this. I have plenty of friends that run incredible businesses where the point is to make people buy things they don’t need. Nearly everything revolves largely around getting people to consume more these days or to shift their loyalty to another brand and consume just as much.  We’re all existing within this economic system that we can’t seem to leap out of. 

Across the world our recycling systems are in crisis. Plenty of countries don’t even have apt recycling facilities (like Cambodia) and others are failing (like Australia and America). A major recycling facility in Australia recently went bankrupt leaving an entire states rubbish in disarray.

A number of things need to be executed, swiftly, to turn the recycling industry around.

  1. Reduce. Let’s all agree that recycling is not the answer. Not even close. The first step has to be reducing our consumption and that’s on both consumers and our governments. That needs an adjustment in our behavior and a big change in the current economic system, so for now, focus on reducing the consumption of your own household and encouraging others to do the same. Join your local Buy Nothing group, commit to buying second hand items, borrow items from friends, jump on an app to share resources and use your saved money for experiences or paying down debt.

    Action: We recommend conducting a waste audit at your home for one week. Everything you throw away for one week gets collected and it’s then your job to divide it all into piles (or a quadrant) of plastics, food waste, recyclables, and other waste (and a pile for electronic waste if you have that). Audit it. What can you eliminate, what are you throwing away to much, what can be replaced with reusables.

  2. A huge re-education program is required in some countries. Whilst numerous industrialized nations have excellent education in place from schools to value resources and understand recycling (check out how kids in Japan are taught about eating, community, responsibility and food waste for example and note how little plastic waste is created by doing this), others need significant help. Every school should have recycling facilities and composting. Every school should be focussing on discouraging the consistent buying of goods. This also means re-education for parents. There should be far more focus on sharing technology resources, buying second-hand, reducing the plastic used (an overwhelming amount) and changing how canteens are set up. Before you send out that school list to care providers, consider what is in fact actually mandatory. Many lists these days request specific brands which is ridiculous. Don’t suggest brands, don’t align your school with consumption, reduce the list and point parents to resources where they can buy recyclable and compostable goods. Learning the value of resources and recycling starts from a young age and becomes a habit and can be influenced greatly by schools and homes.

    Action: Conduct a waste audit at the school of any kids in your life or in your local area. Once a school knows how much waste, and of what, they’re creating there’s a benchmark and you can advocate strongly for specific lessons and actions to implement. If you’re a caregiver and you’ve got an overly plastic or brand associated school item list, approach your school and see what can be done to change it.

  3. The waste countries create they should be responsible for. It is insane to consider that we spend even more emissions on shipping literal rubbish across the world. Even crazier to imagine that the natural resources to create those goods were first likely extracted in countries from Canada to Saudi Arabia, then shipped to China, then shipped back out to countries and then had their waste shipped back again. These endless cycles need to stop. It doesn’t matter if it costs the government more money in the beginning to prop up recycling facilities. Governments can run them themselves too rather than outsourcing to private companies, so they’re not focussed on profit but make enough to cover operating costs. If they don’t, it will provide more incentives for governments to encourage reduction. Most people who own homes pay rates, taxes and services (in some places even a huge percentage based fee upon buying a home like stamp duty), effective recycling should be part of that.
  4. We need some industry wide standards on materials the can be used in common products. For example, a lot of plastic could potentially be recycled but because it’s all made of out different chemical sets, with varying labelling it’s extremely difficult to recycle together and each facility needs to seperate it out which doesn’t happen and isn’t feasible. Standardize the plastics and the packaging.

  5. Consumers absolutely have a big role in this but companies need to have regulation on what kinds of items they can create. At the moment this is definitely not a polluter-pays system. Companies have gotten away with producing and releasing mammoth amounts of items into the environment that they know will be landfilled. There has been little pressure on companies to create the facilities required to recycle their items, and even better, reduce their packaging. This needs better laws.

  6. Token greenwashing needs to stop and be called out. If it’s a small business or a business trying to do the right thing, contact them. If it’s a big company, let everyone know. They have the resources and the means to change but, as they don’t feel a natural obligation to protect our planet, they won’t until public pressure, or laws (which likely won’t be initiated or passed without the same pressure), demand it.

Our recycling systems are largely a mess. As a consumer, do what the system doesn’t want you to do; reduce, reduce, reduce.

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Developed by Lis Dingjan

Lis is the founder of Nowhere & Everywhere. With a background in law, international development & service design, she is a passionate advocate of human rights, climate justice, eating from the ground, exploring deeper, giving back a little more than you take and designing better systems. Lis spends a significant portion of time in the field in rural Cambodia.