Recycling is a Sham! – Labour Article
Even if you’re not really concerned about the environment, you’re probably a person who does the bare minimum: you recycle. You put out anything that’s cardboard, plastic, or glass, and that constitutes you doing your bit for the planet. You are a vaguely decent human being, well done.
Except, you’re not – doing your bit for the environment I mean. Recycling is one of the biggest shams in society, it doesn’t happen nearly as much, or how you think.
The majority of what you put into the recycling bin won’t actually get recycled. This is for a number of reasons, which all started way back in the 1970s. The late 70s was the time when single-use plastics were starting really to take a hold on the market. Because of this, came the introduction of recycling household waste. As this became more and more popular, later came the single-stream recycling; you no longer have to separate your recycling.
This caused all sorts of problems primarily because the average homeowner doesn’t actually know what they’re doing when it comes to recycling; fair enough seeing as there are over 40,000 different types of plastics. Single-stream may make things easier for the consumer, but it leads to huge contamination, both in terms of damaged materials from liquids or oils or the inclusion of non-recyclable materials.
What’s more, is that recycling plants are businesses, not charities. As a result, they won’t recycle anything that won’t return a profit, nor will they implement expensive, arduous sorting processes to make sure they catch everything they possibly can to recycle. Single-stream systems may increase participation, but cost an average of $3 per ton more to maintain than dual-stream systems. Furthermore, any slip-ups can cause fatal damage to machines. Rather than risk it, batches of perfectly adequate recycling are thrown away because it potentially has one wrong material in it.
At the moment, the average contamination rate is roughly 25%. This means that one in four items put in the recycling bin will not be recycled. Germany’s recycling system is considered to be the best in the world, and yet they are still unable to recycle 30% of their waste. Nowhere near Germany’s standards, 53 out of 123 London councils incinerated more than half the household rubbish they collected, Westminster burning 82%! Out of the 8.3 billion tonnes of virgin plastic produced worldwide, only 9% has been recycled.
Thus, it becomes increasingly apparent that our worldwide recycling infrastructure is fundamentally, woefully even, inadequate.
This has been hugely exacerbated in recent years after China introduced its new ‘National Sword’ policy. In one fell swoop, China banned 24 types of waste from entering the country. This was after 25 years of accepting two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste. For recyclers across the world, this was a huge blow. It caused the price of cardboard to half in under a year and the price of plastics to plummeted to the extent some recyclers don’t see it as worth recycling. Since this new legislation, China’s plastic imports have dropped by 99% and the UK, along with the rest of the world, have had to find different dumping grounds.
In 2018 alone, the UK exported 611,000 tonnes of plastic to other countries; out of sight, out of mind. Part of the reason we export such a large amount of our waste is that it removes culpability for how it is dealt with. More than half of the packaging designated for ‘recycling’ is sent abroad, where there is no guarantee it will be processed. In fact, it will usually end up in landfills or burned, which contribute heavily to air pollution. This is just another example of how the West sidesteps its environmental responsibility and keeps living the luxurious life it wants to.
Another problem I have with recycling is the onus it puts on the consumer. Granted, the market is slowly responding to calls for plastic-free shopping. However, the reality is that plastic packaging is unavoidable; I guess I could fork out a small mortgage for zero-waste shopping, but I don’t think my parents would be happy with that!
When single-use plastics were first introduced to the market in the 1970s, there was an initial kickback as this concept of disposability was pretty unheard of. As an attempt to normalise consumerism and disposability, Keep America Beautiful put out a famous ad featuring a Native American (played by a white guy) shedding a tear as he watches a passerby litter out of his car window. The message: “People started pollution. People can stop it”. It effectively refocused scrutiny from the producer to the consumer.
Turns out, of course, Keep America Beautiful was a front for a lobby group made up of representatives from major beverage companies. Their aim was to distract from the fear concerning the environment whilst they switched from glass bottles to plastic. Nevertheless, the neoliberal emphasis on individualism has been unshakeable.
Look at the success of the #BanPlasticStraws movement, with companies such as McDonald’s moving to paper straws. Ironically, not only are these paper straws harder and often impossible to recycle, but plastic straws only make up 0.03% of ocean plastic. In comparison, 46% of plastic found in the ocean is from fishing nets.
Yet, where is the widespread campaign against mass fishing practices? Where is the outrage that we, on average, are swallowing a credit card’s worth of microplastics a week? These don’t fit the individualist narrative.
Now I’m not trying to say that recycling is inherently evil. Of course, as a concept it is brilliant. The benefits of recycling can be seen in how recycling aluminium cans saves 95% of the energy to make new cans; recycling steel and tin can saves up to 74%; recycling paper saves about 60%, and recycling plastic and glass saves about one-third of the energy compared to making the equivalent from virgin materials.
However, this does not solve the problem that, apart from glass and metals, these materials have an expiration date; many can only be recycled a couple of times before being unusable. The average virgin paper can be recycled five to seven times before being too degraded for new paper. Plastic that can be recycled, usually only last one or two rounds before being defunct.
From this, it is clear that recycling itself is not the root problem, but merely a symptom of a greater issue. A combination of consumerism culture and the focus on the individual has meant that we have built a recycling system unable to meet the demands of our modern, wasteful society.
Written by Senior Labour Writer, Abi Smuts
Point of Information
Recycling is a sham among many – A Liberal Response
This article draws attention to an important climate issue that is too often ignored and I couldn’t agree more with Abi’s conclusion. The driving force behind climate change is societal value in affluence.
Unfortunately, recycling is just one of many climate shams. The fact is most climate initiatives are little more than symbolic policies and false promises. The climate crisis is not being addressed properly, sometimes not at all.
The nature of policies aimed to combat the climate crisis are symbolic rather than substantial. The Green Recovery promised by Johnson not only ignores the main drivers of climate change but also proposes solutions either unviable or unrealistic. The ban on plastic straws and cotton buds is a drop in the ocean for tackling plastic pollution. And then there’s non-conclusive evidence that a shift to electric cars, following the production of them, will actually lower emissions.
Recycling is just another band-aid approach to avoiding the causes of climate change.
Yet it is completely necessary.
Recycling does come with its own carbon footprint. But, we live on a finite planet that simply doesn’t have the resources to keep up with escalating demand.
For this reason, as Abi stated, individuals can not be the scapegoat. We need governments to enact structural change to ensure recycling does work. This means making it profitable and possible for recycling facilities to deal with the ridiculous amount of waste, without endorsing the out of sight, out of mind approach and exporting it to countries we use as dumping grounds.
However, whilst it is the government’s role to mediate individual demands towards a collective good, this can not excuse individuals’ ignorance. I understand people can only consume as ethically as their means will allow, but when it comes to waste the main problem is overconsumption.
Everything is now made to convenience, to encourage the culture of consumerism. Recycling would be made easier if we actually thought about why we need to make that next purchase.
And when we do purchase something, it takes a mere second to check how its waste is to be recycled. If it can be recycled? If not, why not? Are there other brands that would?
Our habitual shopping habits directly impact the contamination rate and quantity of waste going into our recycling bins. If we all made it a priority to mindlessly consume. The sham of recycling would be a lot easier to demand a solution for. And we should be voting in a government that actually wants to save lives and save the planet otherwise these solutions will not be substantial.
Written by Senior Liberal Writer, Abby Milnes
Paternalist powers must lead the fight against climate change. Significant change cannot stem from individualism – A Conservative Response
I wholeheartedly agree with Abi on this matter. But is this a selfish response on my part?
Recycling puts up a front as our communal solution to climate change. We feel we’re doing our bit, so look no further for ways to aid the fight.
In many ways, this is unavoidable no matter what climate policy is in under scrutiny. Whether you’re the government, a business, or a consumer. We’re always looking to shift the blame of climate change onto someone else and, find ‘the easy way out’.
I am too, to blame for this. My mind fails to stretch far beyond the immediate possibilities presented in front of me. Yet, whilst I agree that individual ignorance cannot be excused. Ultimately, the matter extends far beyond the reach of the average individual. If we follow what we are told by the powers above us and recycle as so, how are we the bad guys?
Moving on from the ‘he did it, she did it’ tone that usually accompanies discussions on climate, we must be realistic.
The only way to begin to substantially rectify the mistakes of the past, as both Abi and Abby note, is to improve current climate policy industries to become profitable. And, thus admirable for potential market entrants.
Policies such as those involving recycling must become more transparent and streamlined. With recycling plants developed to accommodate the growing number of non-recyclable goods. This way, less and less waste will slip into landfills. We would hope.
In line with this, legislation must be enforced, not just for electronics. But, for all industries that goods and their packaging must meet standards of longevity. Plastics ought to be designed to either decompose after a number of years. Or to be able to be recycled for 10+ years.
Thus, we see how numerous policies (and more) must function together to produce results. Ones sponsored by the government, not one induvial in a world of seven billion.
Written by Junior Conservative Writer, Emily Taylor
Hi, I’m Abi, a final year at Uni of Exeter studying International Relations and English. To me, it was only in A Levels that I realised how important politics was, when I was stuck in my male-only, extremely conservative Politics class having to constantly justify and defend my opinions to them.
I am a first year student reading Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Exeter. After completing my degree, I wish to go on to study Public Policy at a postgraduate level.