Stop dissing recycling!
Yesterday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson bullishly overrode the opinions of the expert sitting next to him and told a group of schoolkids that recycling “doesn’t work” and is “not the answer”. This view was surprisingly supported by many environmentalists even though it is self-evidently bollocks.
OK, so maybe it’s not self-evident to everyone, so here’s why it is bollocks:
- We won’t achieve Sustainability without a circular economy where all materials are recycled time and time again. Nature is the only model of sustainability that we know works, and nature cycles everything – in fact all life on earth depends on fitting in to those natural cycles. Likewise with industry – when Interface investigated all the potential sustainable raw materials for new carpet, the only truly sustainable answer that could deliver was “old carpet”. We must recycle, no ifs, no buts.
- Those who say “we’ve got to eliminate plastic” should look around them. Hands up who fancies rewinding back to a 1920s-style economy (including 1920s-style medical devices, heavy, inefficienct vehicles, lack of waterproof clothing etc)? How do we sell that to the public? Can somebody whittle me a wooden keyboard and mouse to complete the rest of this blog post?
- OK, they’ll say, I really meant ‘plastic packaging’ when I said ‘plastic’. So, then how are we going to prevent a massive increase in food waste or a rise in transport emissions (from the use of heavier, bulkier packaging)? We use plastic for packaging because it does its job extremely well, being light, durable and airtight – unfortunately the very qualities that pose a problem if (and only if) plastic is dumped into the environment. If it’s recycled back into another product, it’s not in the environment, simple as.
- Kerbside recycling is one of the few successful examples of public behaviour change for the environment. If the very same (type of) people who were urging the public to recycle 20 years ago now turn round and say “Tcha, idiots, you’re only fooling yourselves.”, don’t be surprised if the public say “Piss off then, why should I bother with all this low carbon stuff you’re asking me to do?” We need to build on this success, not undermine it.
BTW: if you’re thinking “what about reduce-reuse-recycle?”, my answer is “what about reduce-reuse-recycle?” The waste hierarchy is a 42-year old rule of thumb; it is not carved in stone. I find a slavish adherence to the hierarchy is a barrier to the circular economy and thus to true sustainability.