Recycling part 2: Not Good Enough

9.5 Kalundborg

After my last article came out seeming rash and unsubstantiated, I knew I needed to write another. As such, for two things I need to apologise. Firstly, that I built the article solely on my knowledge of recycling from personal research and research relating to my masters, so this time I shall go into more detail about the base rather than make it anecdotal. Secondly, I employed a sensationalist title for the sake of it, leading up the point that recycling, especially in its current state, is a solution of the “less bad” variety rather than “good”.

So firstly I will qualify “less bad” and “good”. When it comes to environmental performance solutions there’s two main ways of approaching it. The first one is usually put under the heading “sustainability”, in this case a solution for the “less bad”. This doesn’t mean that sustainability in itself is only less bad, but the solutions that come underneath it usually are. The mentality behind the solutions arises from “we must make our limited resources last longer”. It is a current pervasive mentality when it comes to environmental practice, and in itself it  isn’t a problem, it’s when such solutions are regarded as the final solution that the problem arises. Asking for resources to be stretched out for more years doesn’t solve the problem.

Recycling under its current form falls under the purview, it looks at amalgamating similar materials to create composite materials you can reassign to successive uses. Plastic bottles can be reassigned to be speed bumps. for example. It doesn’t resolve the oil issues or even replace it.

“Good” solutions, on the other hand, are approached with a different mentality, which is normally ascribed to the circular economy. It’s under this distinction that most proponents of a circular economy will avoid the word ‘sustainability’ like the plague. It’s not about making material life longer, but rather about truly making it a lifecycle. That means that upcycling becomes general practice, reuse and remanufacture both are mainstreamed, biological cycles are closed as well, and at every stage of the way value is added. The mentality is that of “we must make our impact on this planet a positive one, so that it’s better with us here”.

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Personal Side Note:
Mentality wise, I’m completely on the side of having “good” solutions rather than “less bad”, because, when distilled, the former underlines “we can make the world a better place, humans can be the best thing that ever happened to this planet!!” while the latter is resigned to “humans are bad for this planet, and it’s better we were not here, so let us minimise impact”. That attitude is something that I cannot accept, because it’s a disgusting and defeatist estimation of the human potential.
***

What I was trying to do with my original article was make people uncomfortable, because when you recycle, you feel like you’ve done your part, enough, thus the world is a better place now. But as long as the feeling is “just continue doing more of this”, recycling is not good. Recycling, especially as it now stands, is a good bridge, something guiding the road from landfills to remanufacturing. In my opinion, sustainability will have a huge part to play in the next 10-20 years of economic growth, but it cannot and should not be seen as the goal.

As a conclusion to the recycling part of things, upcycling is important, but also more expensive and more attention needing. It requires full separation of materials, , meaning, for example, that milk bottles and their caps need two different streams of recycling to avoid contamination. It gets expensive in the case that they aren’t separated by the end user, as technologies will need to be used to do that separation to clean the stream. Only in this case can they be reused as milk bottles again, assuming they were designed for that subsequent use and considering that any chemicals could seep through during recycling processes.

But leaving all of that behind us, at the end of the day it’s a problem of mentality. When we have millions of smartphones full of rare earth metals, the markets of which are completely monopolised by the Chinese, and rather than recover those rare earth metals at the end of life, we send them to dumps most likely in Nigeria or China. That is a waste of resource. It’s taking the easy way out in the short term (in all processes from design to use), and ruining the world in the long term, while not even adding economic value in the meantime. In short, it’s irresponsible and wasteful. Worse than that, for the economic system we have in place, it’s equivalent to flushing money down the toilet.

Recycling is certainly the best of the wide spread solutions we have in place. There are many small-scale solutions that have been significantly better, including Renault’s remanufacturing plant in Choisy-le-Roi and the much-exemplified Kalundborg Eco-Industrial Symbiosis. There are being steps in the right direction, which the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is certainly helping, including with the (currently running) Disruptive Innovation Festival. But largely, the “doing less bad” mentality is still seen as the long-term solution towards environmental bettering. This is exemplified like-for-like by recycling, as it’s the same things that are wrong with recycling right now that condemn sustainability. They both can be used in the new mentality, but as they stand they’re a hindrance towards transformative change.

Benjamin Tirone Nunes.

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