Sunday, 17 March 2013

‘Recycling’ is not Sustainable

 The Ecobuild trade show was a glimpse into one aspect of a more sustainable future but when I look at the glossy show guide on its way into the recycling box I wonder whether we are any further forward. What were the show organisers thinking in producing thousands of these thick tomes? A slim program is all anyone needed to navigate the show and those with smart phones would not even need that. We are not thinking sustainability across every aspect of society, but poking around with small changes at the margins.

Our local rubbish collecting system works on a two-week rota. In Week 1, the black wheelie bin for general rubbish is collected. Week 2 is recycling week. The green wheelie bin is for garden and kitchen waste; a green box for bottles; a green box for paper; and a green bag for tins and plastic bottles. Most people make the effort to sort their rubbish as required by the system, with some more diligent than others, but the greater system of which this is part is deeply unsustainable.

 If we create the right framework, appropriate processes and behaviours will evolve which will make rubbish obsolete. McManners 2008

Running society so that there is no rubbish is entirely feasible but the supply chain is radically different; and radically better from all viewpoints except the corporate view of companies that survive on making the unnecessary packaging which is an integral part of the current ‘”efficient” supply system.

Current recycling is a poor attempt to green up a deeply unsustainable system. The system can be descried as ‘cradle-to-grave’, with the recycle centre and land-fill as the grave. We know how it should be. Bottles should have a deposit for return and re-use; food should be packed in returnable systems or in biodegradable packaging; all items should have their end-of-life designed into them at point of manufacture; many sale transaction should become service delivery models.

This better system can be descried as cradle-to-cradle. Every item of ‘waste’ becomes an input into a production process. The biodegradable stream can produce energy and compost for agriculture; the technical stream is processed into new products (but only after a number of refurbishment and repair cycles). Why do people take pride in putting a big pile of recycling outside their house? People just do not know how much better the system could be and have little chance in their own sphere of influence to change the system - but it is clear that the system must be changed. Stand up to be counted.

McManners, P.J. 2008. Adapt and Thrive: The Sustainable Revolution. Reading: Susta Press

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