Recycling

Week 11: Yes, Recycling is Broken

By Leyla Acaroglu 

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. The things you are separating and putting in your recycling bins are probably not being recycled — and there’s a good chance that they are ending up somewhere you never imagined. 

The current recycling crisis, where much of the diligently separated waste is not getting recycled, started in January 2018, when China announced that they would stop taking the world’s recycling through enacting their “National Sword” policy, which after more than 25 years of accepting two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste, suddenly banned the import of most plastics and other recyclable materials.  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.  

A year(ish) has passed since the new Chinese legislation came into effect, and their plastic imports have dropped by 99%, forcing the bulk of the global recyclables to be landfilled, incinerated, stockpiled on docks, cast out into the environment, or sent to other countries in the region. The latter is an equally unpopular move where many countries are now openly rejecting foreign trash.  Experts now estimate that as much as 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced by 2030. 

Recycling is a lovely idea when it works; in fact it's a fundamental part of the circular economy, after, of course, sharing services, remanufacturing and repair. But like any system that displaces the responsibility somewhere out of sight, the externalities come back around to bite us all in the ass eventually. Ocean plastic waste is just one of the massive unintended consequences of relying on a quick fix, which then, in turn, reinforces the problem you are trying to solve. Systems thinking 101: the easy way out often leads back in, and there are often no quick fixes to complex problems. Recycling as a solution has reinforced the problem, and now we are dealing with a ‘frankenproblem’. 

There has been an unfair reliance on consumers to be the responsible parties in dealing with the rise of disposable items. This is after producers and retailers have decided, without consultation, to wrap everything in plastic or replace reusables with disposables, normalizing the use of single use items by claiming them to be more hygienic and convenient than their reusable counterparts. 

There are many coinciding aspects with how this further exacerbates the issue. For example, take the issue of contamination (one of the motivators for China to stop accepting the world’s trash): many everyday items that can’t be recycled are mixed in with recyclables. Or soiled materials, like a coffee cups or food packaging, get in with clean items and then make a mess of the rest. Then there is “wishcycling,” when people who are so conditioned to “do the right thing” that they toss whatever they wish could be recycled into the recycling bin, hoping that the trash fairy will ensure that it gets recaptured and magically turned into something useful again (another spoiler: they don’t).  Furthermore, there is no universal recycling system, nor are there practices to teach an ever increasingly globalized world how to manage the complexity of this diverse practice. Nearly every state and country has different rules about how to recycle. In some places it's rinse and separate, in others it's pop it all together (no need to rinse), and in others there are very detailed separation techniques for all the different types of plastics (identified by the small number at the base of the plastic item). So we have well-intentioned citizens getting lumped with the responsibility of deciphering what they should and should not do, whilst producers make add more complex materials to the system. Of course there are just the lazy people too, who throw whatever wherever, further increasing the contamination rates, and this just makes the cost of recycling higher and results in more recyclables ending up being dumped in landfill. 

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. And countries around the world are sending contaminated loads of recycling back to their parent countries — often wealthy, consuming nations like England, Canada, Australia, United States, Germany, and the rest of Europe. What we have actually created is a system of dumping a waste legacy on developing economies, as few rich countries have localized recycling facilities to coup with the amount of trash generated. 

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

The systems failure: enforced disposability & a normalized throwaway culture

Single-use throwaway stuff permeates our day-to-day lives; it's hard to avoid a coffee cup here, a plastic bag there, some wooden chopsticks at lunch, or that boxed take-out Thai food for dinner. While it’s most prevalent in the food industry — bottles, cups, lids, straws, grocery bags, produce bags, cutlery, produce wrap, and even those single-serve little sauce sachets — recently, design for disposability has moved into the medical, transport, and government sectors just as much. Over the last 60 years since the invention of cheap plastics, and even more so in the last 15 years, since the rise in the cult of busy, we have literally designed ourselves into a disposable society. 

I have written about this before in this article on Systems Failures: Planned Obsolescence and Enforced Disposability:  “Many of the goods and services we all rely on are created with the specific intent to lose value over time so that the consumer is stuck in an enforced consumption cycle, which increases value for the producer, but not for the customer nor the planet. And the cost of dealing with all of this reduced value stuff is placed back on the customer and local governments in the form of funding local waste management services.”

That’s right, the decision by a producer or even your local cafe to swap to disposables is then costing you money in either general waste (ie landfill fees) or recycling — both of which are costly aspects for local government to manage, so much so that many are ditching recycling all together! The cost of running these cumbersome recycling systems is also one of the reasons so much plastic waste is escaping into nature via the rivers and oceans of Southeast Asia, as the rapid transition to disposable plastics has not been met by an increase in municipal waste management services. 

Recently I illustrated the extent of how we don’t see the costs of invisible things in a TEDx talk in Lisbon. 


Around the world, daily options for obtaining basic needs such as food and water have dramatically changed over the last two decades, from a reusable user experiences to a crappy plastic or paper single-use disposable option. For many, it feels cheap because it is, and it feeds into the speedy convenience-fueled lifestyles that currently dominates societies. But the long-term costs are much greater than the immediate cost cutting and time-saving perceived benefits. I know there are many hygiene benefits and that the bendy plastic straw help many people in hospitals or who are disabled, I get that a disposable diaper is so much easier than washing them, but the extent of disposable single-use products is fundamentally unsustainable. And the really insidious issue here is that we are all paying for this! We pay for the cost of a disposable lifestyle embedded in the cost of these services and products, pay for it again through local taxes, and then we pay for it collectively in the loss of natural environments like beaches and waterways. We pay for it when 90% of table salt ends up filled with microplastics, and we will continue to pay for it as long as we continue to believe that there are no consequences to our disposable addictions. 

As  awareness about environmental issues associated with waste has risen, so too has the quick fix of “make it recyclable” as a solution to disposability. This has validated the production of single-use product streams. It has given way to the myth of ‘good’ (paper) and ‘bad’ (plastic) materials, which is so problematic as all materials have impacts, but it also has distracted us from the real issue all whilst more and more products and services have shifted to disposable from reusable. 

What frustrates me to no end is that so many agents in the system just deflect responsibility to other parts. The plastic manufacturers say that the brand owners don’t want to change, and the brand owners blame the customers who then blame their governments who then blame the retails or the companies, and the cycle of blame continues. The reality is that plastic is a fantastic material for durable products, like reusable packaging systems that can be easily sterilized and reused. For example, I was on a flight recently where the food was provided in a thick plastic reusable bento box that had a salad and a snack in it, no plastic packaging, simple box wrap (although they did have disposable utensils…) but it was designed to be washed and reused over and over again. Of course washing has its own impacts too, but there is always a break-even point that can be factored into the systems design. The design solutions are actually really simple and the infrastructure interventions often financially viable, but the will to make change by societies’ institutions is significantly lacking. Where are all the pioneers who will help flip the script on our disposable world?

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. I recently heard of a large supermarket retailer trialing package-free dispensers because they saw a shift in the market, which is dictated by economic actions of people everyday. Simply put — we need a reusable revolution to get us out of the recycling mess.

The story of Recycling is the Story of Intentional Misdirection

Magicians use misdirection to direct their audience to see what they want them to see so that they can trick you into believing what they have done is really magic. This is very similar to the tactic used to get our society to a place where recycling symbolizes the height of environmentalism. Our living grandparents will laugh at the idea of waste; they will tell us that they most likely never even had a trash bin. What was life like before disposable plastic? It was a lot more washing up, by the ‘save and reuse’ practices that, just a few generations ago, were the norm quickly got designed out of the modern world with the advent of cheap disposable materials.  

The big shift towards normalized disposability was initiated in 1970, when the first Earth Day was celebrated in the US, with this famous Keep America Beautiful ad: it features an Italian-American actor poised as a Native American who sheds a single tear as an oblivious passerby chucks a bag of trash out of his car window, into the street. Playing on people’s emotions, the ad then drills a message that we still have internalized today: “People start pollution. People can stop it.” It took two sentences to shift the blame and guilt on disposable items away from the producers of the new disposable economy and onto the citizens they had thrust it upon. 

This ad and many others to come were funded by Keep America Beautiful (KAB), a front for a lobby group made up of representatives from the major beverage companies. The very strategic goal was to turn the attention away from the rising concern for the environment in a post-Vietnam era, as soda and milk bottles were swapped out from reusable ones (which cost the companies money in collecting and washing) to the disposable alternatives. The slight of hand trick was to make out as though the problem was not the calculated shift to normalizing disposability, but the acts of the individuals, who prior to this, were not used to non-biodegradable materials filling their daily lives. 

It’s valuable to interject here a comparison of a recycling system that holds manufacturers accountable, rather than consumers. Such a system can be found in Germany, who is considered to have one of the best recycling systems in the world, in which it recycles nearly 70% of its waste. Many trace this success back to a package ordinance that was passed in 1991, in which it “required manufacturers to take responsibility for the recycling of their product packaging after a consumer was finished using it. This included transportation packaging, secondary packaging (i.e., the box around soda cans) and the primary packaging (i.e., the soda can).” Then, in 1996, the Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act was established, and it “applies to anyone that produces, markets or consumes goods and dictates that they are responsible for the materials’ reuse, recycling or environmentally sound disposal. This act particularly targeted producers and encouraged them to focus on one of three waste management strategies: waste avoidance, waste recovery and environmentally compatible disposal.” 

The contrast in policy and in recycling success rates here further solidifies that manufacturers should be held accountable for packaging and that the solution is sustainable, circular design

Redesigning systems: what happens now?

Now that China is no longer accepting the world’s recycling waste, we need to have more efficient localized recycling systems in places that help to close the loop and bring about the transition to the circular economy. The challenge is how can you help make that happen?  Additionally, closed loop service provision systems like the recently launched Loop, will help dramatically eliminate single use packaging at least. 

We are always finding ways to help people make positive change at the UnSchool and overcoming the inertia that often seeps in when problems of this magnitude are presented. So, here are some really good first steps you can start with. Individual lifestyle swaps: get some small wins under your belt to motivate you and influence others around you, by refusing single-use, taking your own, asking for reusables, or refusing to buy something. This has positive ripple effects, as the more people who see a new practice, the more normal it becomes in society at large. It might seem futile, but bigger systemic impacts come through the regular consumption choices we make everyday. Look also at what you can do it your professional life by letting your workplace know you want to help them swap from disposables to reusables.  Enough people doing this in the world at large will redesign the normalization habits of hyper-disposability so that it goes out with the trash. 

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If you want to get started on designing for a circular future, you can download our FREE Post Disposable Activation Kit, a set of free tools that we designed to help you activate your leadership and make lifestyle shifts for a post disposable future, read my book on circular systems design, listen to this great podcast from the 99% Invisible, or come to an in-person program at the UnSchool to activate your agency and learn the skills of creative changemaking.

Week 4: Will Global Plastic Bans Work?

unschool

By Leyla Acaroglu

The lightweight and easy-to-produce nature of plastic has made it globally ubiquitous in a bazillion forms. As we are all becoming too aware, these cheap conveniences have negative impacts on the natural world and there is a growing trend in public policy actions to ban certain plastic products. Whilst there are complexities in implementing bans, there is an interesting conversation to be had on how different countries around the world are taking legislative action to discourage the use of some types of disposable plastics (like bags, cutlery, and styrofoam containers), and how impactful this is for activating change and moving toward a circular economy.

The Issue

Today, the average North American or European person consumes 100 KGs of plastic each year, and half of the world’s plastic has been produced in the last 12-15 years. The statistics on just how many disposable plastics are used and end up polluting the environment are staggering. With four trillion single-use plastic bags being used around the world each year, we are drowning in plastic waste. With a collapsing recycling industry, there is clearly a strong need for a systems change to support the functional delivery that plastic products bring us, but without all the disposable consequences.

As you can imagine, things aren't always as simple as they seem on face value. Banning bags and straws can help in some ways to curb the tsunami of plastic waste, but bans alone will not address the real underlying issue: the global normalization of disposability and expectation of convenience that has become a central aspect of our fast-paced, hyper-consumption-fueled lives. Furthermore there is the important question, of what replaces the plastic products, and what impact these alternatives have?

Just some of the bans include: European Union, Mexico City, New York, Kenya, United Kingdom, and Costa Rica to name just a few. The World Economic Forum counts 127 countries with active bag regulations in place.

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15 single-use plastic issues

  1. 91% of plastic waste isn’t recycled (source)

  2. Only 1% of plastic bags are returned for recycling (source)

  3. It costs retailers in the US alone $4 billion to give away “free” bags (source)

  4. 12 million barrels of oil are required each year to make plastic bags for the U.S (source)

  5. There is more micro-plastic in the ocean than there are stars in the Milky Way (source)

  6. 8 million tons of plastic flow into the ocean each year (source)

  7. As many as 8.3 billion plastic straws pollute the world's beaches (source)

  8. Ingestion of plastic kills an estimated 1 million marine birds

  9. Ingestion of plastic kills an estimated 100,000 marine animals each year (source)

  10. There are 46,000 pieces of plastic in each square mile of ocean on average (source)

  11. 1 million plastic bottles are bought every minute around the world — and that number will top half a trillion by 2021 (source)

  12. The average person eats 70,000 micro-plastics each year (source)

  13. The top three contributors of micro plastic waste in the oceans are car tires, fibres from wash cloths, and small plastic beads from body care products (source)

  14. If plastic consumption increases at its current rate, by 2050 there will be 12 billion metric tons of plastic in landfills (source)

  15. Scientists have found plastic in human poop (source)

The thing that makes plastic so incredible as an ‘everything-material’ is the same reason it's a nightmare for the natural environment —  it's lightweight and indestructible. The lightweightness means that bags and bottles blow out of trash cans, and float on the ocean surface until they land on beaches. The indestructible part means that the stuff stays around for a very long time. The actual number of years it takes for plastic to break down is unknown, as all plastic in the world has only been around since the 1960’s when we started to mass produce it for everything.

The Changes

We are in the middle of not just a backlash to disposable plastics, but a significant cultural shift and transition to a circular economy that even has the Queen of England on board with the need to detox from disposable plastic.  She recently announced that Buckingham Palace will go plastic free after watching David Attenborough’s Blue Planet series! 18 months ago, China introduced a ban on all imported plastic waste, which has sent the global plastic recycling market into a tailspin. To get a full rundown on this, listen to this fantastic podcast on 99% invisible that explains the history of plastic straws and the public health concerns that fuelled their mass appeal in the U.S.

The mounting issues are encouraging countries and companies around the world to respond to consumer outcry about not just waste washing up on beaches, but on enforced disposable culture that we are now entrenched in. There are many reasons why we need systems change for a post disposable future and a circular economy.  

The Bans

The European Union just banned a list of 10 everyday disposable plastic products (interesting they avoided bags!?), and there are hundreds of various types of bans in place around the world, ranging from microbeads to expanded polystyrene (EPS) to single-use plastic bags, straws, cups, and utensils.

There are many different ways countries are legislating disposable plastics. Some have a total ban, which basically says if you are caught with these items you are in deep doo doo. Kenya, for example, has the highest with a $38,000 fine if you are caught with a plastic bag (which incidentally has created a fascinating black market for bags).

Taxation is also used to disincentivize product use; often referred to as a “bag tax”, countries like Australia, Sweden, the UK, and many more are using this approach. This is a bit of an easy way out - in a user-pays system, many people with the means will continue to pay the small inconvenience tax (often around 5 or 10 cents), whilst people who are less economically mobile will be burdened with the cost. Then there are also partial bans where certain regions within a country have imposed bans.For example, in the US there is not a total ban of plastic bags, but there are cities that have total bans (like San Francisco). This also applies, in some countries, to plastic bans in religious, historic, or natural sites, as in the states of Goa and Gujarat in India.

Do Bans Work?

Banning plastic cuts off the problem at the source, so at face value, and according to statistics, these bans present an effective and sustainable solution. For example, some widely shared figures tout that Ireland’s bag tax that was imposed in 2002 has led to a 85% reduction in plastic bag litter there. And, according to reports from San Jose, California, their 2011 ban has led to plastic litter reduction of “approximately 89 percent in the storm drain system, 60 percent in the creeks and rivers, and 59 percent in City streets and neighborhoods.”

While these numbers seem promising, things start to get a little more complex when you examine them through a systems mindset. Bans can misdirect the perception of what the problem is; in the case of bags, it vilifies plastic, but many of the alternatives put in place do not fit into a circular economy and are equally as problematic from a whole systems perspective. Paper bags are not as strong, so they are often double bagged. When you look at all the processes that go into making them (such as growing trees, cutting them, bleaching and processing them, and then manufacturing the bag), you start to see that there are ecological impacts at other parts of the system.

Additionally, we’re beginning to see plastic sales increase in other areas as an unintended consequence of bag bans; in California, for example, plastic garbage bag sales increased 120%! This is due to consumers needing bags for things they previously reused their plastic grocery bags for, like collecting household waste and picking up pet waste.

The issue with all of these products being banned is the disposability of them. Paper straws or wooden chopsticks may conjure up more eco-friendly sentiments, but they still cause significant issues when they are designed for single-use outcomes. Banning one product breeds a market for a new one, and then the question is in whether the new one will end up being better than the last disposable item. That is the sustainability question that needs to be answered from the start as we move toward circular design solutions that fit into a circular economy.

Even with items that are designed to be reused, like cotton tote bags, we have to be mindful of the life cycle impacts here too. The Danish Government recently published a LCA of grocery bags, in which they found that you’d have to use an organic cotton tote bag 20,000 times more than a plastic grocery bag in order for it to be better for the environment due to cotton manufacturing impacts like water use, damage to ecosystems, air pollution, and more.

Bans are also interesting to consider from a behavioral perspective. On one hand, they create a new type of normal for people and allow society to shift perspectives on certain things — like the fact that hyper-disposable products are not good for any of us. Bans also force innovation, as people will have to find new ways of meeting their needs. But on the other hand, when something becomes harder to get, it makes it more valuable, which leads to a rise in workarounds to getting the thing that is no longer readily available. What is even more interesting is the physiology of bans — people get really irate when they have something taken away from them. In both Singapore and Australia, for instance, there was a big controversy when the supermarkets tried to ban bags, and a small percentage of very vocal people claimed this was a violation of their rights.

Dissecting the issues with plastic bans here at a high level reinforces the need to examine problems and proposed interventions through a systems lens and a life-cycle perspective in order to avoid creating more problems. While the destruction imposed by plastic makes us all want to jump to a quick-fix-solution, we need to suspend the need to solve and reframe the conversation by emphasizing the real issue of disposability.  

Only time will tell if bans help ensure the disruptive shifts we need to get to a better future, but in the meantime, we can all examine how we contribute to disposability in our lives and implement micro-actions to support a sustainable future. As for bags, the best answer for now is simply to reuse the bags you have, no matter what type, over and over and over again. For some ideas on getting started with a post disposable lifestyle that fits into the future circular economy, download our free Post Disposable Activation Kit at UnSchool Online. or take our class on sustainability that covers life cycle thinking.

 

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