Minnesotans For Sustainability


Home ] Up ] Feedback Please ] Table of Contents ] Search MFS ] MFS News ]

Sustainable Society:  A society that balances the environment, other life forms, and human interactions over an indefinite time period.







Technology & Production Systems-General

Specific Issues in Recycling

Sandy Irvine & Alec Ponton*


In a society built on mountains of waste, it is quite understandable why many people have campaigned for more recycling. FoE, for example, really established itself with its campaign in the early 1970s against Schweppes and non-returnable bottles ('Don't Let Them Shhh...Over Britain). A lot has changed since then. Where once there was a rare visit from local environmentalists or the scouts to raise funds by collecting old newspapers for recycling, it is now quite common to find bottle banks and the like parked outside supermarkets. Local authorities have been required to complete plans to increase recycling rates; the European Commission is making moves in the same direction.

Certainly there is a great deal still to be done. Globally, some 66% of all aluminum and 75% of all steel and paper is simply dumped on the environment. In Britain, less than 5% of domestic waste is currently recycled. In the case of plastic wastes, only 10% is reclaimed while 20% is burned and the rest pollutes landfill sites. Britain dumps some 2.5 million disposable nappies each year. The packaging industry consumes some 5% of the country's energy supply. In the USA, there are even videocassettes designed to be thrown away after 5 to 10 playings. According to research done by FoE, however, only a third of local authorities seem set to reach the government's modest target of recycling 25% of household waste by the end of the decade and nearly 60% of councils failed to submit plans on time.

In any case, household waste represents only 4% of British solid waste and the government has set neither reduction nor recycling targets for other sources. Though it certainly seems desirable that the scope and scale of recycling is extended, there are good reasons why it should be seen as only the final resort in a package of measures. There is a real danger that recycling initiatives can be used to evade even more urgent action elsewhere, at earlier stages in the production-consumption pipeline.

The basic laws of energy and matter, in particular 'entropy', dictate that energy resources can never be recycled. Nobody has burned coal and relit a fire from yesterday's ashes. At best, we can use the waste heat from energy conversion in district heating schemes next to power stations instead of releasing it into surrounding air and waterways. By contrast, of course, matter can be recycled.

Yet material usage must lead to some material dissipation. At every stage in the usage of a raw material, some of it is effectively lost for further use. Furthermore, collecting, transporting, separating and processing used materials takes time and inputs of yet more resources. Some people get so enthusiastic about recycled paper, for example, that it might be forgotten that trees still have be cut down in the first place to keep up with society's boundless appetite for paper. It is also important to take into account the total impacts and costs of a product's life cycle. The biggest point of input is not waste disposal but mining and processing to create the fuels and raw materials in the first place, hence the need to cut down 'inputs' before we worry about recycling 'outputs'. 'Recyclable' products can still be highly undesirable.

Supermarkets, for example, defend the phasing out of returnable glass bottles by pointing to the potential recyclability of the plastic PET replacements. Even if this theoretical possibility were to become a large-scale actuality, it would not alter the fact that its original raw material is a finite resource of very limited future supply. Nor is this its only limitation. It is extracted increasingly from sources of great ecological vulnerability (e.g. the Alaskan shelf) and/or political instability (e.g. the Gulf); prone to drastic accidents in its extraction and transportation (e.g. Exxon Valdez); and manufactured in equally polluting and hazardous petrochemical plants.

Indeed there is serious pollution around some recycling plants. The American paper Fifth Estate has reported, for example, that the big Fort Howard Paper Company plant in Wisconsin is the source of serious discharges of PCBs, dioxins, chlorinated organics, heavy metals and phosphorus into local waters, through its products bear the attractive label 'recycled' once on sale in the shops.

More generally, in a growing economy, more recycling would mean more factories, more machinery, more energy generation, more road transport, more giant mechanised sorting centres etc. Furthermore, it is a waste of time and resources to recycle goods whose use is either unnecessary, divisive or harmful. German car manufacturers, for example, are boasting about the fact that their big, fast, luxury limousines are designed to be recycled. What we need, however, is fewer cars on the road.

There is also a danger in the development of technologically sophisticated recycling projects. They may boost recycling rates. However, they bypass the fundamental problem of getting citizens to take responsibility for the wastes they create. It is also important to stress that waste incineration, even for power generation, is not a form of recycling as some councils claim.

Not only does it potentially generate dangerous air pollutants it also requires a steady stream of fuel and therefore discourages proper recycling (and, more importantly, reuse). Less obviously, they are also net losers of energy.

As Fifth Estate put it, in an expanding economy, recycling is a bit like a juggler trying to keep more and more balls in the air. According to Jeremy Rifkin, optimistically assuming only a doubling of the world's present population, it would take 200 times the present output of many minerals to give everyone the present American standard of living. As Richard Gilbert of the Canadian Federal Task Force on Packaging puts it, "recycling is just reinforcing the throwaway society" (quoted by David Suzuki and Anita Gordon, It's A Matter Of Survival).

The simple fact of the matter is that technological recycling cannot underwrite our present economic system. It only makes sense as part of a switch to an economy in equilibrium with the Earth's capacities, rhythms and tolerances.



Bashford, D. Strategic Implications for Increasing the Recycling of Electrical & Electronic Products. Greener Management International, 9, 1995: 62-72.
Bell, J. The Mixed Bag. Environment News, July/Aug., 1992: 14-17. Reuse of plastic milk bottles in USA.
Berkeley Ecology Centre. The Seven Myths of 'Recycled' Plastic. Earth Island, Fall, 1996: 26.
Chaplin, S.W. The Return of Refillable Bottles. Resource Recycling, March, 1991: 131-138.
Hay, A., and G. Wright. Once is not Enough. FoE, 1989.
Henstock, M. Design for Recyclability. Institute of Metals, 1988. Focuses on the recovery of materials from industrial waste streams.
Hoering, V. The Rise & Fall of the Green Dot. Down to Earth, 15/4/94: 30-33. Recycling hiccups in Germany.
McHarry, J. Reuse, Repair Recycle. Gaia Books, 1994.
Outerbridge, T. The Big Backyard: Composting Strategies in New York City. The Ecologist, 24(3), 1994: 106-109.
Pollock, C. Mining Urban Wastes: The Potential for Recycling. WorldWatch Institute, 1989.
Young, J. The Sudden New Strength of Recycling. World Watch, 8(4), 1995: 20-25. American developments.

References : Packaging & Reduction of Packaging Waste

Ryan, M. Packaging a Revolution. Worldwatch, 6(5), 1993: 28-34. Focus on Germany's attempts to cut packaging waste.

References: Sewage Disposal

Dindal, D. Life in a Compost Pile. Paper to Rodale Waste Recycling Conference, 1976. Other details not known.
Harper, P. Fertile Waste: Managing Your Domestic Sewage. CAT, 1994.
Leich, H. The Sewerless Society. Bull. Atom. Scientists, Nov., 1975: pp not known.
Riley, P.J. & D.S. Warren. Money Down the Drain: A Rational approach to Sewage. The Ecologist, 10(100, 1980: 342-345.

(Though the Guide's author freely admits the limits to his research, this topic would seem to be the one in which there is the greatest gap between the inherent importance of the issue and the paucity of treatment it seems to have received in general 'green' literature. One source he came across years ago, entitled appropriately "The Toilet Papers" by, I think, Syn Van Der Ryn of California, has gone missing.)

* Used with permission of the authors.
See original at < http://www.realworld.u-net.com/EcoList.Technology.html >.

Home ] Up ]

Please send mail to webmaster@mnforsustain.org with questions or comments about this web site. Minnesotans For Sustainability (MFS) is not affiliated with any government body, private, or corporate entity. Copyright 2002, 2003, 2004 Minnesotans For Sustainability