When Recycling Isn’t as Green as It Seems

When Recycling Isn’t as Green as It Seems

By Nicole Pfefferle, MS candidate, environmental studies and sustainability science, Lund University

“That kills me,” said Lewis Akenji pointing at the water dispenser in the hallway of the Congress Center with a recycling bin right next to it. “That gives you the message it’s OK: Just drink and drop, it’s gonna be taken care off.”

Akenji, who is with the Japan-based think tank Institute for Global Environmental Strategies, was speaking at October’s World Resources Forum (WRF) in Davos, Switzerland, where many of the world’s environmental experts had gathered to discuss how to create an economy largely without waste. In most major European cities, recycling bins have replaced traditional waste bins, and recycling stations for special materials, such as metals and batteries, are often located close to supermarkets.

In Europe, we now have little excuse for not separating our garbage, and the rate for recycled disposals is steadily increasing: According to EU statistics, 28 percent of all waste in Europe was recycled in 2013, up from 26 percent the year before. In 2014, as part of its “circular economy” strategy, the European Commission adopted a waste management proposal that aims for recycling rates to increase from 70 percent up to 90 percent, depending on the material, and a reduction in the amount of landfills. The proposal’s purpose is to secure access to raw materials and to create jobs.

We, like our governments, have largely come to think of recycling as having no downside. But recycling is not always the most sustainable option. Recycling is greatly pushed in government policy, but waste reduction and prevention are more rarely found in legislation. With an increasing demand for resources, recycling has turned into a profitable business and the industry is booming. But some are questioning its long-term sustainability. For its critics, the ability to recycle distracts from more profitable, and more green, waste-reduction strategies. Perhaps most striking, an awareness of recycling can make people more likely to consume more.

“Recycling policies are almost like giving a safety net to governments. Everything they want to do is promote recycling,” Akenji said. “Because we know that we can recycle in the end, we just keep turning out more material.”

This is not to say that we should not recycle. Treating waste as a valuable resource not only minimizes it but is also an effective way to conserve energy and natural resources. Even waste that is not recyclable can be turned into energy. In Sweden, 20 percent of all households are heated by non-recyclable material, and buses in major Swedish cities run on biogas.

“Recycling is very necessary but not enough,” said Sanna Due Sjöström, chair of the Nordic Council of Ministers’ Nordic Waste Group. She offered the example of food waste in Sweden. Knowing that food waste can be turned into fuel, consumers there see little need to throw less away, even though biofuel can recover only 10 percent of the energy used for the initial production of food. As Akenji noted, recycling itself can be relatively energy-intensive.

Due Sjöström argues for an expansion of regulations to create longer product life spans and increased reparability, and for a shift away from the focus on recycling. “It is extremely more valuable to prevent waste in the first place,” she said. For example, Sweden could save 13 billion to 19 billion Swedish kronor (about 1.3 million to 1.9 million euros) just by preventing 20 percent food waste, according to a new Nordic Waste Council report to be published in the coming weeks.

Kamila Guimarães de Moraes, an author and environmental lawyer, summed up the view of many who fear recycling is potentially deceptive in its promises of ecological sustainability: “We simply need to consume fewer resources.”

Most of those involved in promoting recycling or resource efficiency suggest that for recycling to be sustainable, it has to be incorporated more completely into products’ life cycle. That is, their eventual recycling should be built into their design from the beginning. For de Moraes, it’s important to reconnect recycling to the production cycle and provide insights from recycling processes to the beginning of the value chain to improve product design.

Concerns about recycling are not widely held among environmental experts, and most see little realistic alternatives that can manage the world’s waste problems as effectively.

“Recycling is the best option to get back our raw materials,” said Mathias Schluep, a WRF program director who also works with the Swiss State Secretariat of Economic Affairs (SECO) on recycling projects. “Feeding disposed materials back into the value chain closes the loop and makes recycling per se sustainable.”

One SECO-funded project, Sustainable Recycling Industries (SRI), conducts “life cycle inventories” to improve the environmental and social effects of recycling in developing countries and also encourages sustainable recycling methods among waste companies and informal waste collectors. Schluep also pointed out that recycling provides workplaces and livelihoods in many developing countries.

He sees limited possibilities for transferring recycling knowledge to the design of products; incentives are missing for the producer, he said, and capacities are limited. Therefore, SRI does not proactively advise product designers. The same applies for the incinerator industry. Roland Weippert, an expert in metal recycling after incineration, agrees that there are few means so far to advise product designers on increasing recyclability.

Harald Mattenberger, an environmental scientist, has given up on cellphones, and instead of a computer he uses a secondhand tablet. During an interview, he walked off to search for the switch off the light–to keep his resource consumption to a minimum. While most of us probably could not imagine life without a cellphone, the principle of a shared economy has become increasingly popular. Many who believe more fundamental alterations are needed for our economy think it is necessary to create a system where people will want to follow Mattenberger’s example of consuming less.

“We need to create a context in which sustainable consumption is default and much easier,” Akenji suggested.

One radical way this might be achieved was suggested by Anders Wijkman, a senior adviser to the Stockholm Environment Institute, who said our economy needs to shift from one where we own and then dispose of our products to one where we rent them until they are no longer needed and are recycled once more. He asked why he needs to own his computer, his cellphone or even his clothes.

For Wijkman, the answer is clear: “We need new business models, instead of just making profit by producing new stuff all the time.”

This story was originally published on projourno.org.

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