Remember Sauroman from the Lord of the Rings? Also known as the "White Wizard", everyone thought he was a good guy. In the movies, he wore a white robe, lived in a green oak grove, and seemed concerned about the world. As the story plays out, not all is as it seems. Alas, green robed Recycling is a lot like Sauroman. Perhaps you've had your suspicions already-- seeing a plastic bottle on a beach, or hearing about a giant island of plastic in the ocean.
In The Lord of the Rings, the heroes believe Sauroman's façade of goodness. While they are distracted, Sauroman plunders the forests, raises an army of darkness and marauds the land. The entire world of Middle Earth is threatened.
I've been visiting dump sites and recycling centers around the world. I've been working on the front lines of the struggle with plastic. My observation is that like Sauroman's spell, "Recycling" likewise lulls us into the illusion that all is well. Meanwhile, the veiled cogs of darkness and destruction churn with industrial efficiency.
Let's get semantic-- part of the illusion stems from a misuse of the word "Recycle". To be clear, there's natural "re-cycling", and then there's Industrical "Recycling". Re-cycling, in the true sense of the word, occurs in nature. When a leaf falls from a tree, it becomes food for a host of microorganisms and insects, which then benefit others. In the end the leaf is broken down into the very building blocks that another tree will use to grow. In other words, 100% of its nutrients are sublimely re-cycled into the circle of life. This all happens with seamless efficiently, within a few meters of our tree.
However, when a plastic bottle is tossed into a "recycling" bin, it begins a process of a fundamentally different sort.
First, there is nothing local or sublime about industrial recycling. Our bottle is swept into a noisy, high-energy journey around the planet, bouncing from one factory and superstore to another. Much of North America's plastic ends up being shipped to Asia for processing. Much Asian plastic gets sent to Germany. Wherever it goes, it melted down and then shipped to yet another factory. Made into something else, it is shipped to a store somewhere else in the world. At each node of this journey, a raucous factory, a fuming refinery, a massive shipping dock, a container ship, a fleet of trucks, are required. An immense amount of energy is expended.
Second, Recycling isn't pleasant. No species or plants benefit. Quite the opposite-- let's take the oft-forgot human side of the industry. Men and women are shoved into the most unpleasant of jobs. I took one such job at a state-of-the-art recycling plant to experience first hand how recycling works in Canada. There, massive amounts of plastic passed me by. It was a fascinating first hand experience in recycling, but, it wasn't pleasant. In fact it was one of the least pleasant jobs in the entire city. Only folks who couldn't find other jobs took this one-- I was surrounded by newly arrived immigrants who couldn't yet speak english. Around the world the bottom-of-the-barrel conditions of recycling are relatively the the same. Recyclers are seen picking through dumpsites or pushing heavy carts under the sun. On the other side of the world, folks are pressed into the manufacturing lines, smelting plants, and ships that turn that plastic into something else. Very few benefit from this aparatus.
"Let's take the oft-forgot human side of the industry. Men and women are shoved into the most unpleasant of jobs."
Third, Recycling isn't a circle. Its a downward spiral. When plastic is turned into something else its rarely into what it was first. A plastic PET bottle isn't recycled into another PET bottle, but into a lower form of plastic. I recently bought some surf shorts and was surprised to find out they were "100% made from recycled PET bottles". Wow. Cool. But, then I gave it some thought. Who's going to recycle my shorts when they come to their end? Maybe its technically possible, but I am pretty sure that most shorts like mine will not be recycled. This same down-ward spiral of "Recyling" occurs with countless other types of plastic. Worn, the plastic can only be down-cycled into a form of plastic with less value. The likelyhood of this being recycled is reduced with each cycle of the "Recycling".
Finally, Recycling is not the seamless perfection of nature. Not at all. And there lies the rub and the illusion. At the recycling plant where I worked, dozens of machines on the conveyor line segregated plastic into different categories. The goal of the factory was to separate all the valuable plastic into the right piles, and let the plastics without value through. The value-less plastic went through to the land-fill pile. My job was often to sweep up the factory floor into this trash pile. Perusing the heap, I was stunned at all the perfectly good bottles, cans, and more that made it into this pile despite the complex aparatus around me. For me this was a joltlng awakening. Even if a piece of plastic is recycleable, even if it can be recycled forever, due to the fundamental inefficiencies in the system, inevitably, it will end up in this pile. Inevitably, despite all the aparatus, all the energy, and all our best intentions, every molecule of plastic will have this fate.
In the Lord of the Rings, while the heroes are distracted, Sauroman raises his army of darkness that threatens the whole of Middle Earth. The Illusion of Recycling enables a similar dark threat to the world. Lulled into the belief that each piece of plastic can be neatly recycled, we continue buying and consuming pieces of plastic without any hesitation. We ignore the fact that for each plastic bag/toy/cup consumed another is made to take its place. Worse, we are oblivious to the fact that every single molecule of plastic that we consume, recycled or not, will inevitably end up in the biosphere.
When we understand this pattern and see it on a global scale, it is no wonder that dumpsites are overflowing, rivers are clogged and giant islands of plastic are amassing in the oceans.
Its time to step out of illusion into the light. Recycling doesn't reduce the flow of plastic into the biosphere. It increases it. Precisely because there appears to be a solution, plastic consumption remains unabated. And this rampant consumption is where the true darkness lies.
Plastic is not our foe. Nor is recycling. Like Sauroman, they are both but symptoms. In the Lord of the Rings, Sauroman wasn't the real evil; he was a but a minion of a much older and deeper force. The challenges of our age likewise cannot be blamed on plastic, the root of the darkness lies deep both in our culture and in ourselves. The heroes of the Lord of the Rings were compelled on a perilous quest to see the root evil vanquished. Quests don't just happen in the movies. In this day and age of plastic and rampant consumption, transcending the illusion once and for all, is a journey that we are called upon.
Russell Maier is a regenerative designer and one of the leaders in the global ecobrick movement. He is a principal in Global Ecobrick Alliance. You can read and subscribe to more of his reflections on Patreon.com/russs