When you see “rubbish” on the street, do you stop to pick it up?
If you choose to pick it up, are you confident that the bin is the best place for it?
We sit somewhere on the spectrum between blissfully unaware and frustratingly helpless. Perhaps in some places we don’t notice the insignificant piece of litter, as it blends into a scene of garbage. Or, we slide tackle the plastic bag like an environmental warrior proud to dispose of it “properly”. Either we are lured into a false sense of security, assuming that the process beyond our good deed is a legitimate solution, or we face the conundrum that the bin may not be the best place for trash at all.
Planet Earth is a beautiful place, but holy guacamole our bad habits could soon find us ankle deep in a global rubbish bin. Considering our disposal is restricted to the bubble called our atmosphere and resources are dwindling quickly, recycling is less of an alternative and more of a logical necessity.
So where does that leave us? We are investigating WTF is up with recycling. For a word so familiar, we know peanuts about it. When it comes to efficient re-use of materials on this giant rock called home, we are only just scratching the surface.
Here’s a go-to guide to empower your resourceful antics.
WHAT DOES RECYCLING EVEN MEAN?
Recycling is defined as the process of converting waste into reusable material, and exists as the last solution in the Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle hierarchy. Unlike up cycling, which reuses the same material in its original form (without changing the essence of the material) for a new purpose, recycling regenerates the ingredients to be used for a similar intent or to create a completely different product all together. Who Gives a Crap toilet paper is a great example of recycling done well, where as Pigeon & Weasel Candles have up cycling nailed.
The benefits of recycling are enormous (and probably not news to you), including a reduction in the consumption of raw materials (extracted through mining), energy usage, air pollution (from incineration) and water pollution (from landfilling). Not to mention, recycling reduces the extravagant cost of landfill levies across states and countries. For example, the price for landfilling in the city of Sydney has crossed the $300 per tonne threshold for companies. Fortunately, the incredible cost associated with trashing is creating urgency for innovation in the space of resource recovery, infrastructure and systems.
"A PRODUCTS RECYCLABILITY ACTUALLY HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH IT'S PHYSICAL AND CHEMICAL COMPOSITION. IT HAS TO DO WITH ECONOMICS. IT IS PURELY BASED ON OUR ABILITY TO RECOGNISE A MATERIAL AS A VALUABLE RESOURCE."
Even Henry Ford recycled his Model T Ford's in the 1920's as a cost-saving strategy.
After all, waste is a human creation. If not for our incessant reliance on industrialisation and inorganic materials, we could trust the Earths ecosystem in all its glory to decompose the things we create. Taking a shit in the woods is communicating in Earth’s biodegradable lingo, yet expecting a polyurethane surfboard to decompose in landfill is talking total fucking nonsense.
Note. If you have become so disconnected with nature that a forest dump is foreign to you, please see step by step instructions below.
We create lacquers, plastics, TV’s and wetsuits in unnatural environments, to produce totally unnatural outcomes, with the expectation that they will disappear effortlessly in nature, a place that they do not exist harmoniously. If something requires monumental effort and man-made design to create (like plastic), it will demand even greater ingenuity to make it obsolete.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Firstly, sustainability is god damn sexy. But more importantly, it sure beats living in a stinky methane ditch.
I’m sure we don’t need to go into the criticality of proper waste disposal. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a frightening example of why we can’t just throw our synthetic shit into the breeze willy nilly, with 80% of the waste that makes up the rubbish island coming from land-based sources. But, before we feel pleased with ourselves as avid bin users, we have to address the fact that disposal alone is absolutely not enough. Consider the insanity of landfill, the most commonly used method for global disposal, also known as hiding our trash in the ground (Learn more with What do you mean, LandFILL).
This simply isn't sustainable, considering the total waste produced in the USA alone each year is over 250 million tonnes. Approximately 54% of it ends up in landfill. Imagine this, one Boeing plane can hold the capacity of 14’600 wheelie bins, therefore the amount of waste annually in the USA alone equates to roughly 1.2 million Boeing planes in size. Every twelve months. In a big hole, near you.
Over the pond, the average European junks over 500 kilograms of waste each year. Sadly, a huge quantity of this stuff is still usable and in its original form. In the United Kingdom alone, the amount of rubbish disposed annually could fill Wembley stadium 70 times. That is a shit load of stuff.
Us Aussies are proud of our 50% recycling rate, yet with over 48 million tonnes of waste now generated each year, it isn't sufficient. For such a small population we are churning through mountains of stuff and chucking it out just as quickly.
These challenges are not limited to Western countries. Places like Japan have such dense populations and limited space. For example, Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo produces 90 tons of waste daily, the equivalent of a city with 90,000 people. About 50 percent of this waste is in the form of paper, Styrofoam and cardboard boxes.
SO WHERE IS ALL THIS STUFF?
1 billion trees worth of paper are trashed in the USA every year and not recycled. Which is crazy, considering that recycled paper produces 70% less air pollution than production of raw materials. Frequently, valuable resources end up in a hole in the ground, purely due to the absence of a convenient or incentivised program convincing enough to change our behaviour.
Plastic (ain't fantastic)
A great example of the convenience trap in our society is single-use plastic products. North American’s throw away 2.5 million plastic bottles every hour. EVERY HOUR. More plastic bottles are thrown in the bin across the USA in a 10-hour day, than the number of people in Australia. Each one, if not recycled takes 500 years to decompose. This process of decomposition is also far from friendly, leaching toxic pollutants into our waterways. On the contrary, recycling a single plastic bottle can conserve enough energy to light a 60W light bulb for up to 6 hours and save a whole lot of environmental damage in the process. Recycling one tonne of plastic saves 2’000 gallons of gasoline needed for the creation of virgin products.
Check out Greenpeace Australia’s campaign against Coco-Cola’s plastic bottles:
A product that has long been recycled is glass. Glass can be recycled indefinitely, although if dumped, it can take over 4000 years to decompose. Taking up unnecessary space in landfill, this process of decomposition is even slower. Glass is one of the most commonly recycled commodities, with a huge array of benefits as a more sustainable material.
Steel is another highly valuable material that benefits us through recycling programs. Did you know the USA throws away enough steel to rebuild Manhattan every year?
Unlike many of the more obvious resources we have come to know, pressure exists to address the organic waste we are now producing on a mass scale. 50% of all food created is actually not eaten; it is wasted by the food industry and in the home, based on imperfections and over-production amongst other things. Composting is a legendary way to recycle food waste into nutrient dense plant stock, yet for those looking for clever additional ways to make a positive mark, take the product ToastAle as inspiration.
CAN ANYTHING BE RECYCLED?
The stats say that over three quarters of waste is recyclable with our available infrastructure and systems, but we only recycle 30% of it. Although as mentioned above, while the availability of resources diminishes, the value of waste materials is on the rise. Innovation is exploding in this space, where pressure surmounts to design recycling schemes to eventually salvage almost anything. If you look hard enough you'll find schemes are emerging to support the recycling of all sorts of neglected resources, including textiles, electronics, cigarette butts and old surf boards.
The current system gives preference to materials of high recycling value, like aluminium. Recycling aluminium saves 95% of the energy cost of producing new aluminium. It is fantastic that the process is available; although it creates a false sense of confidence that the current measures are substantial enough
Did you know, since 2015 in New York you can face a US$100 fine for not recycling old electronics properly. This makes sense, considering the landfill capacity in the State of New York is anticipated to reach its threshold within 25 years. If the USA doubled their rate of recycling to 75%, it would be the CO2 equivalent of removing 50 million cars from the road.
Enough of the figures, it only gets better from here! Check out, Who is nailing Recycling. See the legendary people facing waste head on with incredibly savvy-ass solutions, and find out how you can be one of them.
A psychology obsessed, dive conservationist and business strategist. Charlie is a biophiliac on a mission to inspire intrinsic meaning in human-beings through a fascination with the complex systems of our universe.
Challenging the subjective norms we hold as a society with humour, she is an instigator behind VOX POPULI's mission to make it fashionable to give a fuck.