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.
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.