Recycling Is Cool, but Not Enough!

Earlier this month I participated in an action to clean up Freedom Island, in Manila Bay, the Philippines. Only a few decades ago it used to be a place for weekend family excursions thanks to the beautiful flora and fauna there… until the start of the era of disposable non-degradable products when it became a place where the waste of Manila bay accumulates despite the tireless efforts of NGOs to clean it up. Seeing the level of destruction caused by our way of life I couldn’t help reflecting on what is the real problem with us and how can we fix it.

In situations like these the first reaction is; we need to improve waste collection and prevent, by all means, this waste –mainly plastic– escaping into the environment. Like this we can collect it for recycling and go on with our lives. But one must dare to scratch beyond the surface, for the problem runs much deeper.

Freedom Island in Manila. Photo by Joan Marc Simon

Freedom Island in Manila. Photo by Joan Marc Simon

Of course recycling is great; it saves the materials from going to waste and it helps us feel better about our actions. If you ask people what do they do to preserve the environment they will proudly tell you; “I recycle!”.

And there is some truth in this way of thinking! By recycling one tonne of aluminium we save 95% of the energy that we would need to produce a new one, recycling paper brings 65% energy savings in comparison with cutting down new trees…

It doesn’t make any sense to landfill or burn waste. It is a waste of resources and it trashes the planet. Yet in Europe only 40% of municipal waste is separated for recycling. We badly need to increase this figure and we should aim at nothing less than recycling 100% of the waste we generate. However, today 100% recycling is impossible because a good amount of materials and products are not made to be recycled.

It is not that citizens are not good at separating for recycling, the problem is that the companies sell products that are designed for the dump or in the best case for downcycling. This is not an excuse to lower our ambition; we should aim at recycling everything that goes to waste and all policies should point in this direction but this will require changing the way companies produce, and citizens consume.

Indeed, we should bear in mind that most of what we call recycling is in fact downcycling. For instance; only a tiny amount of plastic bottles are recycled into pastic bottles, they mostly are downcycled to synthetic fabrics which will then slowly desintegrate in the washing machine releasing billions of microfibres into the environment. Recycling is way better than landfill or incineration but it still has substantial economic and environmental impacts. In short, 100% recycling is necessary but clearly insufficient to achieve sustainability.

Human economic activities are mostly about creating value or at least retaining it, in other words, we would not bother to perform an economic activity if what we get as a result brings less value than we had at the start. Recycling is great because it creates value out of waste – which has negative or no value at all. In these times of low oil prices one can still sell one tonne of separately collected plastic bottles for more than 300 euro, scrap metal is a lot more valuable, and there is the same approach for most waste streams. As long as they are separated they will most likely be of value in the market.

However, if we want to really preserve the value in the product the best way is to keep recycling as a last option, and do whatever it takes to stop it from becoming waste in the first place. For instance, if we take an i-Phone and recycle all its precious components we will obtain less than 2 euro for them but if instead of shredding and recycling it we just resell it we can make from 40 to 120 times more money! And the same is true for most other things. If we want to preserve the value –and the planet- we need to work on waste prevention and the reuse, and reuse, of products before they become waste.

There are many new business models that follow this approach;  deposit systems for beverages, leasing services for clothes, car and bike-sharing schemes, and many more that will appear in the coming years. Unfortunately the economic incentives of today still make it profitable for many businesses to make money by externalising costs to the consumers –i.e. trashing the planet; this is the reason why our oceans are filled with plastic.

We need to align the interests of the consumers with the interests of the producers so that doing the right thing becomes cheaper and easier. The European Union is trying to legislate in this direction with the new Circular Economy package but I can see they struggle to think beyond the mindset of “a recycling economy”. Recycling should be seen as what it is; the best treatment option when we have failed at preventing waste.

Beyond value preservation there is another reason for pushing for moving towards societies and businesess models that do not involve waste generation; the fact that there is very little transparency and traceability in recycling and disposal practices. Recyclable stuff is a global commodity; i.e. Europe exports 43% of the plastic we collect for recycling to Asia, mostly China. It is not possible to know in what conditions this plastic is recycled or whether it is recycled at all, and if this post-consumer recycled plastic is turned into new product and sold to Europe again we don’t know whether it has toxics in it or not…

For precautionary reasons we should try to work with systems that allow traceability. If instead of using single-use packaging we use reusable packaging –such as refillables bottles using a deposit system- we preserve the value of the materials at the local level, create local jobs, reduce emissions and ensure the quality of the material.

Going back to the example of Freedom Island; for me the solution to the waste –mostly plastic– pollution is not only about setting up good waste collection systems, but to turn all this public pollution into an economic activity. I.e. the solution to discarded plastic bottles is not only collection and recycling but developing access to potable water combined with localy managed refillable systems for beverages. The solution for the unrecyclable mono-dose sachets for soaps, shampoos, nescafé, etc. is not to make them recyclable but to install in the slums of Manila dispensers of packaging–free soaps. The solution to single-use plastic bags that clog the water discharges is not to make them biodegradable but to ban them and replace them with locally produced reusable bags etc.

Recycling is cool, and we need more of it in order to close landfills and incinerators but the only path to sustainability is through better, safer, longer lasting, repairable, reusable and ultimately recyclable products.


Joan Marc Simon, Executive Director of Zero Waste Europe