Why recycling is not good enough

Recycling, a concept that has emerged in the 1980s is perceived by many as “that” solution for a greener environment. Other than one might expect, recycling is definitely not as good as most of us think.

Our perception about “waste” or rather “goods that we no longer use” has changed very much over the last four decades. Whereas it was still very common to simply “dump as waste” everything we no longer used in the 1970s, the term recycling widely introduced in the 1980 shifted the focus on “waste” as a burden away to something that could actually be used as a resource. Because the new concept recycling seemed to be the ultimate solution to waste generation it gave people the feeling that as long as we recycle, we could consume whatever we wanted. That was however wrong and the concept has very big limitations.

Recycling must not necessarily be sustainable. With resources use it is as with traffic (mentioned in another post): whereas public transport is definitely greener than using your private vehicle, the only sustainable modes of transport are walking or cycling. Most important: even better is staying at home.
Likewise recycling is only the preferred option over disposal, but not the ultimate answer to the question of resources use. Does this sound strange? Well, think about the energy necessary to recollect, clean, separate and eventually recycle goods and materials. Apart from the fact that not 100% of the recycled goods can be reintroduced into the production cycle, any sort of energy use comes at a cost, even if the source is a renewable one.

Addressing this issue and trying to “re-educate” the public, the US introduced the Three-R-Model “reduce, reuse, recycle” in their waste concept as early as the 1990s. The EU went a bit further when expanding this model to a five level hierarchy in its 2008 Waste Framework Directive: prevention, prepare for reuse, recycle, recover (e.g. extracting heat from waste) and disposal was the strategy there.
Unfortunately, also this model has come to an end; or so at least sees it Niall Enright, sustainability consultant from the UK. What he suggests is a waste (or nicer: resource efficiency) hierarchy  based again in the Rs, but this time with seven levels: remove, reduce, re-source, reuse, recycle, recover and return.


The resource efficiency hierarchy (Source: SustainSucess Ltd.)

The strength of this concept is manifold. First of all there is a replacement of the term “disposal” for “return”. Other than critical readers might argue, it’s not simply a different word for the same action. The expression “returning” brings the focus to the fact that whatever we do with resources previously extracted from the environment we will eventually have to return them back to the same environment, unless we perpetually reuse them. In other words, rather than simply “disposing” of waste, we might want to bring it into a state that in turn allows nature to make use of it, for example in the form of nutrients or fertilizer. Where this is not possible, we might want to reconsider our production process, for example in the case of energy from nuclear power: unfortunately, those who praise nuclear power for its low CO2 impact, claiming it was a “green” source of energy, all too willingly forget that its waste is a hazard that will last for thousands of years.

Another and compared to the recycling concept of the 1980s probably the most obvious aspect of the new hierarchy is that recycling is now only level five, third last preferred option. Far better than recycling are “reusing” or “re-sourcing” (means the use of a substitute from an environmental-friendlier source). Even better, as already accounted for in the EU Waste Framework, is “reducing” waste generation, for example by better design. And best and hence on top of the pyramid is “removing”. With this additional level, Enright points at what I describe in the idea that “the most sustainable trip is the one you never do or did”; removing resources from being introduced into the production cycle in the first hand is definitely the most environmentally sound and hence, preferred option.

coffee cupsTwo cups, two lids, two insulation bands and a tray for two coffees. Is all that waste really necessary for a two-sip-pleasure or would two cups also do? (Photo: shutterstock.com)

For many this might be common sense, for others “strange”. Until recently it wasn’t logic that we shouldn’t have everything we could afford. However, with an ever growing world population and ever more people sharing wealth, it becomes very obvious that resources are ending. Consumerism is the beginning of all evil; the more we consume the more waste we produce. Unfortunately, governments have not yet got the point. By trying to revitalize struggling economies with the simple idea of consumerism ever again, they do exactly the opposite of what the new waste strategy suggests. Not more consumption, better awareness is the base for success and a sustainable society.

There are so many things we don’t need and only by acknowledging that any form of production involves energy, that energy is never “totally sustainable”, and that sharing in a system with limited resources might mean that some will have to “reduce” consumption, will we be able to address the resources use and waste problem. Better than “recycling” is “not buying” or “not producing” goods in the first hand.

About blaubear

Born in 1973 in a small village in rural Switzerland and into a society largely dominated by cows (not only was the human population of one-hundred-and-forty outnumbered by them, but politics were driven by unreasonable subsidies for diary products) I was connected with nature from early age on. Observing nature on one hand and the deficiencies of a dysfunctional Swiss agricultural policy with farmers that had lost connection to the land that provided their income on the other, I soon started to question society and the meaning of life. Suffering also under a farcical public education I developed curiosity to discover on my own. That was how I soon learned that little of what I had been taught was true. Skepticism and interaction with people from for me new cultures fostered my interest for the world and eagerness to leave a life shaped by federalistic layman-ship. At the age of twenty-three I hit the road for the first time, an event that later translated into passion. Traveling between cultures has since become part of my life. At the age of thirty-three I finally realized my dream and did a degree in Environmental Engineering from which I graduated in 2009, only to leave Switzerland once more for my "real home" Spain. Unfortunately, the stay was a short one: a couple of months later I was offered a job in Southeast Asia, where I have worked and lived until 2017 before returning to Europe, and finally again to Spain in 2019. My journey through different countries and cultures has taught me that regardless of how different our thinking and values are, no matter what approaches we take, we all can learn from each other. And if we are open enough to see the common instead of pointing out the differences, then we have a chance to live in harmony and peace: Life is all about integration, not exclusion!
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6 Responses to Why recycling is not good enough

  1. Patrick S says:

    Nice to see you back into blogging in the new year Urs 🙂

    I agree here re your points on recycling.

    I understand Australia actually has good rates relative to other countries of kerbside recycling … but as you say this is only a small part of the picture overall and is possibly a ‘displacement activity’ that in no way balances our high-consumption lives.

    One of my ‘pet hates’ about poor use of resources now is mobile phones. The tragedy is modern phones are so powerful that if they were actually properly engineered, and the software OSs were modular and designed for upgrade – they really should be able to last 10+ years. Instead, life-cycles are getting shorter, and they are even moving increasingly to non-replaceable batteries, non-expandable memory etc – a shocking violation of design for long-term use. All in the interest of corporate profit. A project called http://www.fairphone.com/ is a step in the right direction hopefully.

    On a slightly brighter front – and linking your concern re transport – came across a nice initiative called the ‘book pedlar’ outside North Melbourne library on Errol St, its a bike parked under the street verandah with front and rear baskets filled with free books you can borrow and donate to etc. Apparently there is a network of them throughout Melbourne.

    Reducing consumption is actually one of the great challenges in our democratic societies I think, especially those that are both capitalist and increasingly consumerist. It is a lot to do with small habits and affordances, combining infrastructure with social habits, design, etc. One good book by an Australian academic who takes resources and consumption seriously over a long time-period I’d like to read is Urban Consumption by Peter Newton (http://www.publish.csiro.au/pid/6472.htm).

    • blaubear says:

      Hi Patrick

      Thanks for your thoughts and inputs.
      I was thinking about you a couple of days ago. Look at this: http://www.nzz.ch/aktuell/schweiz/atomkatastrophen-radius-fuer-jodtabletten-verteilung-auf-50-kilometer-ausgeweitet-1.18226691.
      Remember the nuclear power discussion and my post about bunkers and iodine pills? As an answer to Fukushima the Swiss government has now decided to enlarge the “iodine-zones” around nuclear power plants in Switzerland from 20km to 50km with the result that there are now 4.6 million out of the 8.0 million (58% instead of 1.2 million or 15%) ) citizens that get the “survival kit”.

      Not sure how safe they feel but quite impressive to see how easy it is to satisfy tax-payers. Free iodine-pills against another decade of a nuclear catastrophe threat seems like a cheap deal to me!?

  2. Niall Enright says:

    Hi blaubear,

    Thanks so much for picking up on the Resource Efficiency Hierarchy.

    Agree wholeheartedly about the most sustainable action being not using the resource in the first place!

    Just wanted to let you know that I have corrected the image on the web-site so that the bottom-most option is indeed “return”.

    This piece appeared last month in the IEMA magazine – The Environmentalist. In the article I posed a question……

    “In devising this new hierarchy I contemplated an additional “R” at the bottom of the diagram which was going to be Remediate. This reflects the result of harmful return of waste to the environment and the obligation to put that right. However I decided against this because it could imply that dumping followed by remediation at a later date is a legitimate waste management method. I would be interested to hear the views of readers.” Just a thought!

    All the best,


    • blaubear says:

      Hi Niall

      An honor to have you comment here!
      I read your article in IEMA’s “The Environmentalist” and I totally agree with your position not to include “remediate”. Even if it might be “methodologically correct” I believe that it’s better not to leave the door too wide open and challenge ourselves in finding better ways than “dumping” and trusting that time will bring the right answers/solutions.
      It’s better we do things well right from the start.


  3. Justin Roborg-Söndergaard says:

    Again some great thoughts & discussion around ‘consumerism’ & the inevitable consequences of this apparently rather mundane activity – I am busy with a small group in Lisbon looking for ways that we can increase/improve the way people use/identify with plastic bags. Another ‘consumerist’ product which has an impact from ‘cradle to grave’. Unfortunately, the graves of plastic bags are inevitably filled with the bones of those who have ingested this insidious product…
    Your discussion around remediation is, I believe, correct. My philosophy of ‘field-to-field’ means that whatever we grow/manufacture/develop should leave no ‘footprint’ or as Niall describes it: we should not be offering any opportunity to later legitimize this as a waste management method. This means that in the 1st instance we should avoid impacts that require remediation. In these cases we need to rethink that product/development or find an alternative that fits the best option possible…

  4. Kimberly Necas says:

    Good day! I am contacting you to ask if you would kindly provide your full name to me so I may cite it properly in a research paper. I am a student at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Missouri. I have provided my email address and you may send it privately if you prefer! Thanks so much!

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