Recycling Is Broken, So We Have to Fix Our Disposable Culture

Promo image. KAB via Modern Mechanix

Leyla Acaroglu calls recycling a "placebo" and calls for a reusable revolution to get us out of this mess.

TreeHugger has long said that recycling is "a fraud, a sham, a scam perpetrated by big business on the citizens and municipalities of America." We have also noted that Recycling is suffering from system failure; it's time for a system redesign.

design for disposability

© Leyla Acaroglu

Leyla Acaroglu has been saying the same thing in Design for Disposability, and now has written Yes, Recycling is Broken: "This pains me to write, but we all have to come to terms with the harsh reality that recycling validates waste and is a placebo to the complex waste crisis we have designed ourselves into."

She notes how the current recycling crisis started when China announced that it wouldn't accept the world's recycling any longer, but as we have also noted, that was all a charade. She has a great way with words: "This move not only stunned the world, but it also suddenly ripped the band-aid off that was holding together recycling as a viable solution to the single-use product proliferation around the world."

Acaroglu notes that the fraud that is recycling is finally becoming more obvious to people. "Good intentioned and well-trained recyclers the world over are up in arms over the news reports that their hard work to get things into the right waste streams is amounting to nothing." She also comes to the conclusion that just fixing recycling isn't going to do the job:

Consumer waste and recycling is a broken system that can’t be solved by just better recycling alone. Don’t get me wrong — recycling, remanufacturing, and repair all have their place in the transition to a circular and regenerative economy, but the reliance on a cure-all magic system that takes your old clamshell salad box and turns it into something just as valuable and useful is very far away from the reality of the current status quo. The undeniable issue is that we have created a disposable culture, and no amount of recycling will fix it. We need to remedy this illness at the root cause: producer-enforced disposability and the rapid increase of a throwaway culture being normal.

I have become convinced that the Circular Economy is really just the plastics industry giving a fancier name to recycling. I wrote earlier:

This sham of a circular economy is just another way to continue the status quo, with some more expensive reprocessing. It is the plastics industry telling government "don't worry, we will save recycling, just invest zillions in these new reprocessing technologies and maybe in a decade we can turn some of it back into plastic." It ensures that the consumer doesn't feel guilty buying the bottled water or the disposable coffee cup because after all, hey, it's now circular.
nighthawks drinking coffee

Edward Hopper's Nighthawks/ Art Institute of Chicago/Public Domain

No, as Acaroglu notes, the problem is the disposable culture. Industry has convinced us that you cannot go 20 minutes without being hydrated and have to carry bottled water everywhere you go. Coffee is no longer something that you sit down and enjoy or drink like an Italian, where you stand and knock it back; it is now a big expensive dessert that you carry with you or have in your cupholder. Meanwhile, Starbucks or Tim Horton's have less staff and less real estate because they have outsourced the sitting area to your SUV and the waste management to you and your municipality who picks up the garbage.

Acaroglu says that this can be fixed. She says "the design solutions are actually really simple and the infrastructure interventions often financially viable." I do not think that is true at all; this is a linear economic system that goes back decades. Fixing it means massive changes to the food chain, service industries, online ordering, the entire culture of convenience that we have become accustomed to. But I do agree with her about where we start:

In the meantime, the burden of change comes down to you and me and our communities to refuse unless it’s reusable — to reject the system that has been thrust upon us by ditching disposables and demanding better products and services. Of course, this is difficult for many people, but each and every action you can take does send price signals through the economy... Simply put, we need a reusable revolution to get us out of the recycling mess.

Banning single-use plastics is climate action.

Acaroglu talks a lot about individual action, but this is too ingrained in all of us. However, the bulk of the costs, from street cleaning to garbage pickup and transport, landfill and pretend-recycling are borne by taxpayers. Governments could demand deposits on everything to cover the true cost of managing single-use packaging. Governments from Sydney to New York to London have declared Climate Emergencies; they could acknowledge that plastics are essentially solid fossil fuels, and that banning single use plastics is climate action.

There are so many reasons that our disposable culture has to change, and Leyla Acaroglu is so passionate and articulate about the issue. It is also wonderful to know that there is a growing chorus of people singing this tune. Read her whole post here, and check out her Unschool of disruptive design.