The End of Recycling
I love my compost heap. I should say ‘heaps’ as I effectively have five – a two bay main heap, a plastic drum for food waste, a wormery and a dumpy bag for leaf mould. And three more at the allotment… but anyway, I turned the first full bay in the main heap the other week and marvelled as the hedge-clippings, grass cuttings, weeds and, ahem, ‘nitrogen rich liquid’ I had put in over the last year had been transformed to lovely, sweet smelling brown humus.
Of course this doesn’t happen by magic – a whole eco-system of microfauna eats the different components and the compost I am so proud of is basically their waste. So they’re using our waste, we’re using their waste and the cycle continues.
So, from a philosophical point of view, which of these two processes is “recycling”? Both ecologists and economists like to construct rigid hierarchies where material and energy move from “primary” producers/industries up to top consumers. But in ecology these “top consumers” produce food for other organisms through their dung and eventually become food themselves. So in reality we end up with a messy ‘food web’ where there is no concept of ‘waste’.
I believe that if we want to move to a sustainable society – ie one which mimics the natural cycles of nature – we have to get away from the concept of “recycling materials” as opposed to “cycling resources”. We would then have a ‘resource web’ just like the ‘food web’ in nature (check out Kalundborg in Denmark). We hear endless calls to treat waste as a resource, but to really do that we have to stop thinking of it as waste in the first place, hence my aphorism “waste is a verb, not a noun.”. If resources are no longer deemed waste then why do we want the “re-” in recycle or reuse?
So maybe it is time to say goodbye to “recycling”.