Traditional recycling is the greatest example of modern-day greenwashing.
Recycling is championed as the strategy to enable a cleaner, healthier world by those businesses that have profited the most from the extractive, take-make-waste economy. In reality, it is merely a cover to continue business as usual. Corporations espouse the efficacy of recycling via hollow “responsibility commitments” in order to avoid examination of the broader negative consequences that their products and business models have wrought.
Recycling is good for one thing, though — it helps us dodge the responsibility of our rampant and unsustainable consumption.
What problem are we trying to solve?
Now is the time to challenge our core assumptions of the global waste management and recycling industry. After nearly 50 years of existence, recycling has proven to be an utter failure at staving off environmental and social catastrophe. It neither helps cool a warming planet nor averts ecosystem destruction and biodiversity loss.
This house of cards is beginning to tumble. In the past two years, several end markets for materials thought to be readily recyclable — plastics, glass, cardboard even low-quality aluminum — have evaporated. China’s recent ban on foreign waste imports places the unsustainability of our material management markets front and center. Other countries have followed China’s lead: Malaysia and the Philippines shipped thousands of tons of waste back to the United States, United Kingdom and Canada, shattering any illusion of the useful blue bin.
As a result, many cities do not know what to do with the waste their citizens generate. U.S. municipalities have paused or scrapped their recycling programs in favor of indefinite storage, landfilling and burning.
Why is this happening? Simply put, the global recycling markets have relied on aggressive and disingenuous marketing, exploitative labor practices and global energy prices to remain competitive. At risk of oversimplification, recycling cannot work if it is more profitable to produce goods from virgin materials than recycled ones. As Stiv Wilson from the Story of Stuff put it: “…if you want to stop plastic going into the ocean in Indonesia, you need to ban fracking in the Ohio River Valley.” The low price of petroleum, coupled with stricter international material management policies, means that ineffective recycling markets are here to stay unless systemic change occurs.