WHAT HAPPENED TO RECYCLING?
Recycling was never a bad idea. When waste streams were simple, and governments were concerned about pollution, recycling was the correct response to protect the environment.
Government is meant to be the trusted steward of our environment. Is it ever a good idea to transfer this stewardship into the hands of industry? Was it a good idea in the 70’s 80’s and 90’s to consistently allow government abdication of this role to industry?
Recycling is Industry-led.
Too much of recycling is controlled by programs minimizing the true costs of the environmental consequences, while maximizing profit.
Recyclers and waste managers have no obligation or mandate to recycle any particular product. They may enter into contracts to recycle certain products. If a product category is included in the BC Recycling Regulation, then such contracts will occur under Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR).
The BC Environmental Management Act defines “recyclable material” as diverted from disposal and “managed as a marketable commodity with an established market…being used in manufacture of a new produce, or is being processed as an intermediate stage of a process.” Recyclable material is defined solely by existence of industry markets.
That’s why recycling occurs when, and only if, industry can make a profit.
BC Recycling Regulation that governs EPR has no definition of “recyclable,” “recycling,” or “recycled.” Pelletized or shredded plastic is processed, but is it recycled? Is shredded fibre recycled paper? Is extracted precious metal a recycled cell phone? Offshore secondary processing of remainders is mostly untraceable. Without clear end-product mandates, partial processing like shredding, pelletizing, and other undefined processing is recorded as successfully diverted and recycled in BC.
Without definition or quantification of “recycled,” recycling is the wild, wild, west of high-grading and the downstream download to burn or bury.
Products do not have to be fully, partially, or even marginally recyclable to be included in EPR programs because industry has lobbied successfully for inclusion of burn and bury product management options. Also, EPR programs cannot guarantee demand or existence of end-market destinations for collected products.
Is it reasonable and rational to expect EPR agencies to magically recycle unrecyclable consumer waste?
Packaging defined as “recyclable” because it can be burned in the manufacture of a new product has become prevalent. Burned packaging cannot appear in a television documentary identifying brand labels on shorelines of a developing country. What is driving design in this environment?
EPR is big-box recycling driven by cost efficiencies, economy of scale, global supply chains, commodity price fluctuations, stock market pressures, and virgin market competition. Sustainable environmental outcomes often take a back seat in such systems.
Recycled product competes with virgin product.
Recycled plastic is competition to virgin plastic; they are two separate industries. The same competition factor applies to virgin oil and recycled oil. Recycled paper competes with first run paper. Recycled often means low quality for high prices. Compared to subsidized virgin industry, the recycling sector is small, fragmented, and under-funded.
Recycling is expensive: collection, transport, de-construction and re-processing are costly undertakings that have to be reflected in pricing. Some materials can be recycled once, others up to 7 times, but each cycle downgrades the material. This makes recycled content expensive and complex.
If virgin material is added to upgrade the downgrade, the recycled content has also downgraded the upgrade. Make sense? How does the blended content get recycled? If technology does not exist, or is too expensive, to separate the “recycled once” from “recycled 7 times” materials, it’s all going to landfill. Has the delay to landfill reduced footprints or delayed resource depletion? That is a complicated mathematical question. Mostly this level of research and development is in infancy and cannot be counted on to predict the best logistical, financial, or environmental path.
Virgin markets persist because of technological deficiencies, and systemic financial imbalance.
EPR and other polluter-pay programs should have leveled the virgin vs. recycled competition playing field, but they were never put to the test. EPR eco-fees should have been set to cover all true costs of full product recycling at the highest level of the waste hierarchy. Fees are set for efficiencies. Likewise, true and full unsubsidized, externalized costs of virgin production should be reflected in virgin pricing. If this were the case, all pricing would reflect all true environmental costs and footprints, and some recycled materials could become competitive.
Even recyclers prefer post-industrial feedstock (like manufacturing left-overs) to post-consumer waste feedstock, to the extent that investment is often dependent on post-industrial feedstock guarantees. No math is needed to conclude that is the circular economy of capitalism at its best.
Industry green washing works.
If there is one reality in the recycling world, it is how convincingly industry can get on the bus with “green” marketing schemes as a response to environmental imperatives. One of the most notable and troubling strategies industry uses to lobby and gain strongholds is language.
I used to wonder what the plastics industry reps were doing at recycling conferences touting the value of plastic, recyclability of plastic, and later venturing into lifecycle assessment conversations with “lightweighting” facts, zero waste commitments, and mostly dimming the lights while we dozed to sounds of our beautiful, safe world of plastic. These reps were courting the recycling mindset, and they were learning to use the language of recycling and zero waste. Meanwhile, back at the recycling depot, the NRES had to use yard waste revenue to pay recyclers to process plastic.
With such fluent use of zero waste language, industry reps became invited guests within recycling circles. Recyclers hoped to have their ear: we begged them to change design of products like multi-laminate packaging that were hitting the shelves. The courtship period was short-lived: it wasn’t long before the reps were at the podium making their case that plastic is better for the environment because it has a lighter footprint than metal or glass. Life-cycle-assessment language, but not theory, was a popular tool for misleading the non-experts who wouldn’t know that life-cycle-assessment for plastic must include the 400 years it lives on the ocean floor.
One example of language takeover with big implications is use of the word “Reduce.” Early 3R’s literature clearly states that Reduce means reducing waste at source, specifically through polluter-pay systems that make hard-to-recycle plastic too expensive to make or buy. But, somehow, industry take-back language re-defined Reduce as “reducing the environmental impacts of a product at end of life.”
That is a subtle language intervention with massive environmental implications. In plain language, this removes polluter-pay from the equation. It removes responsibility for EPR to eliminate poor design. Instead it gives license to unfettered production of toxic materials, while far downstream we simply do our best to ease the impact of products that should have never reached the shelves.
Once language was learned, it was increasingly used for lobbying AGAINST RECYCLING: zero waste became zero waste to landfill, meaning choose “recovery” because it comes before landfill on the hierarchy. Recovery is code for “waste to energy,” which is code for burning waste at a cement kiln. That’s called coal replacement, now. Once burning sounds acceptable, there is no need to recycle. Capitalism ✔ Environment ✗.
The plastics industry addressed the pollution problem as a communication problem. Webinars and conference presentations identified plastics in the environment as a serious issue—one the plastics industry did not cause.
Continued production of non-recyclable plastics is endorsed with language ensuring the public with targets for “100 per cent of plastics packaging being reused, recycled, or recovered by 2040.” By definition of “recovered” in this statement, this target includes the option of burning 100% of this packaging by 2040.
♻ Most people relate this symbol to recycling, which is what Gary Anderson hoped when he designed it to win a contest for a 3R’s symbol in the 1970’s. It was modelled after the Mobius loop, discovered in 1858 by August Ferdinand, a German astronomer and mathematician who considered the loop a mathematical marvel of simplicity, singularity, and continuity. The plastics industry co-opted this symbol as their tool to identify plastic resin codes 1-7 as recyclable, except they aren’t.
How many ways can language appropriation shroud the truth?
Recycling has been stick-handled into irrelevance by industry.
In no way was recycling ever the green industry it should have become. For the most part, recycling rides the coattails of big industry waste management corporations that own the landfills, the recycling plants, the trucks, and everything in between. And the age-old story is that landfill is cheaper than recycling.
Garbage is gold. Recycling is the high-maintenance sibling, tolerated at best, but mostly set up to fail.
At the beginning of 2019, thirty of the world’s top industrial companies formed a partnership, the Alliance to End Plastic Waste. During the formation of this alliance, these companies agreed to invest 1.5 billion dollars in combatting plastic pollution. The Alliance publicly promoted more and better recycling, especially in countries that lack the necessary infrastructure.
However, oil and gas industry giants profit from the use of cheap shale gas as raw material for plastic, and they invest hundreds of billions of dollars in new plastic factories. On the one hand, these industry giants go to great lengths to market their products as recyclable. On the other hand, they swamp the market with cheap, subsidized, virgin plastic that undermines the business model for recycling. By making new plastics so cheap, recycling is only possible if it is subsidized with taxpayer money.
While populations and profits grow, each industry will increase production. Recycling will fail to reduce virgin resource inputs to that industry. This is a race recycling can’t win. Until production is stemmed, recycling will remain superficial—by design.
Irrelevant recycling paves the road to recovery in any and all forms of incineration, pyrolysis, biomass, waste derived fuel, alternative fuel, and waste to energy technology. Industry will profit from no longer having to worry about recyclability.
Global recycling was never real.
Historical reports argue there was never a global recycling market: there was a never-ending supply of end-of-life waste. There was also a demand, but not for this end-of-life material. The demand was to fill empty freighters on their way back to China.
China joined the WTO in 2001 and began shipping cheap goods everywhere. This was also a time of “survival of the cheapest” shipping industry that could not absorb costs of empty freighters. So freighters were filled with end-of-life waste. The recycling industry itself was neither creating demand, nor capable of recycling 45 million tonnes of waste, most of it reportedly garbage or managed as garbage.
Low cost offshore manufacturing combined with cheap backhauls created a supply-demand-supply illusion that had to be ended by Chinese government intervention to ban import of waste.
In economic theory, heading full tilt into a zero marginal cost model will cause the eventual demise of capitalism. Not soon enough to deal with waste from marketplace expansion, with big box stores filled floor to ceiling with masses of low quality, low cost consumer delights, and the resulting flow of waste across the planet. Not soon enough for recycling.
Recycling isn’t bad. Red wigglers aren’t bad. Overconsumption corrupts their purpose.