the recycling illusion

When I was in Grade 6, my teacher taught us about climate change and global warming. I’m not sure if it was part of the official curriculum, or she was just passionate about it, but it felt like we spent a lot of time learning about greenhouse gases and the ozone layer (or lack thereof). Ever since then, I’ve been concerned about the impact of my actions on the environment.

To be fair, my concern has varied over time, but there’s usually a baseline whisper from my conscience: Do I really need to buy this [item packaged in plastic]? Can I reuse or repurpose this instead of throwing it in the bin? Do I really need to drive, or can I take public transport? Am I using too much water?

Some time ago, I learnt that Australia was exporting plastic recyclables to China for processing, and then China decided it didn’t want our plastic waste anymore. Since there were insufficient local recycling plants to divert this to, all of our plastic recyclables started going straight to landfill. I even remember watching some kind of news story about a Victorian woman who was stockpiling recyclables along the side of her house until the government put a solution in place. (I hope she’s not drowning under piles of used plastics by now.)

I got thinking about this again after reading this article about the plastics industry. The article also mentions a documentary called Plastic Wars which you can watch for free online (search for it on YouTube), but the main points are:

  • Some plastics with a “recycle” symbol (the “chasing arrows” that form a triangle) are only recyclable in theory — these plastics will not be recycled even if you put them in recycling bins because they are too difficult or too expensive to recycle
  • The idea of recycling was sold to consumers to create an illusion that plastic is not bad (i.e. the “it’s fine if we keep using plastic because it will get recycled” mentality)
  • For too long, people have been focusing on what they can recycle without giving nearly as much thought to what they can reduce and reuse. This is where the focus should be shifted

I did have some prior understanding of the large amounts of energy and water needed to recycle used materials into reusable items, so I already had an inkling that recycling wasn’t a complete solution. But I had no idea about this whole illusion, and how bad it really is.

On one hand I can’t believe this kind of information is only just being revealed now, but, on the other hand, of course it’s just coming to light now — you don’t spend millions of dollars on a marketing campaign just to let the public find out it’s a sham. And it’s good that the Plastic Wars documentary is trying to disseminate this information, but I wonder how many people will actually hear about it, watch it, and actually change because of it.

In reality, this kind of information has been available for a long time. If you search Google or YouTube, you can find any number of websites and videos on this topic. But, honestly, who’s searching for this? We’ve all bought the recycling illusion.

At one point in Plastic Wars, a recycling broker shows viewers a mountain of plastic coat hangers. He tells us that we all assume (logically) that when we buy an item of clothing from a shop, and they take it off the hanger, they’re going to reuse that hanger. But that is not the case. Apparently it’s easier for the store to recycle discard the hangers and buy new ones. This is the kind of thing that makes me never want to shop in department stores again (not that I do much shopping anyway).

Maybe the way stores use coat hangers is not something we can control, but we can consider more ways to reuse the things we would usually discard (including recyclables), and reduce how much plastic we buy and use in the first place. I appreciate that the Victorian woman in the news story didn’t want her recyclables in landfill, but I hope she was reducing her plastics consumption too. 

Anyway, the long and short of it is, plastics production has been increasing at a phenomenal rate, and plastic recycling was never keeping up — it was never set up to be able to keep up. And maybe it is possible to improve the recycling situation, but we can’t pin all our hopes on that.


3 thoughts on “the recycling illusion

  1. Interesting. I agree that reduce and reuse is the best approach to the plastics problem. While I use plastic items, I am a little wary of them. I didn’t know that the chasing arrows recycling symbol was theoretical and that’s disturbing. Thanks for sharing this info here.

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