Recycling: The Evil Illusion

In Middle-earth everyone bought the illusion that Saruman was one of the good guys. Let's not make the same mistake with recycling.

Recycling: The Evil Illusion
Over the last decade, I’ve been working on the front lines of the struggle with plastic. I’ve been visiting dump sites and recycling centers around the world to discover for myself what really happens to plastic. In 2015, I took a job at a recycling facility in Canada, to find out what happens in my own country and shortly afterwards wrote this essay. As research shows that the Covid pandemic has in fact "reversed the momentum of years-long global battle to reduce plastic waste pollution"* the issues are as pressing today as they were then.

Yes, ‘Evil’ is a strong word– especially for an activity that most of the world thinks of as ‘Good’. However, after all that I have observed, I have come to have deep doubts about Recycling’s benevolence. There is an ominous reality lurking behind it that we ignore at the peril of people and planet.  Perhaps you already have your suspicions– after seeing a beach strewn with plastic, glimpsing a smouldering ‘landfill’, or hearing about a great patch of plastic in the ocean.

For those of you who have read or seen the Lord of the Rings, you will remember Saruman, the ‘White Wizard’. Everyone thought he was a good guy. Just like the characters in the story, as a kid reading the book, I was fooled too. After all, he wore a white robe, lived in a grove of oaks, and seemed concerned about the world.

But not all is as it seems.

Saruman surveys his army of orks and goblins as he prepares to lay waste to Middle Earth. – Screenshot from The Return of the King.

In the novel, the heroes fall for Saruman’s façade of goodness to their peril:  While they are distracted, Saruman, in secret service of the Dark Lord of Mordor, moves to ensnare Middle Earth in a kingdom of darkness.  Recycling, adorned in its green robe, is a lot like Saruman. Casting  its own evil illusion, it is slow and steady perpetuating a similar web of darkness on our Earth.

So, what is really going on?

Let's get semantic

The illusion begins with a deceptive use of the word recycle. To be clear, there’s natural recycling, and then there’s Industrial ‘recycling’. Recycling, in the true sense of the word, occurs in the ecologies around us. When a leaf falls from a tree, it becomes food for a host of microorganisms and insects, which then benefit others. The leaf is broken down into the very building blocks that another tree will use to grow again and sprout new leafs. A majority of its nutrients are being sublimely cycled into the infinite circles of life while the rest are sequestered over time deep under the ground. This all happens with seamless efficiency, within a few meters of the tree.

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.  While in the system, the bottle is swept along a noisy, energy-intense journey around the planet. Much of North America’s plastic ends up being shipped to Asia for processing. Much Asian plastic gets sent to the rest of the world for consumption. The journey of a humble bottle spins a web around the planet involving countless miles of transportation; endless cargo trains, colossal container ships, and fleets of trucks hurtling down our highways.  The plastic streams from one node in the grey network to another– from a raucous recycling center, to a refinery, to a fuming factory, to a massive mall– then back again. Very much unlike the subtle local cycles in a forest, an immense amount of energy is expended and carbon emitted.

Also very much unlike ecological cycles, the journey of a piece of plastic is not indefinite. Fact is there is nothing circular about industrial recycling.

Piles of compressed plastic to be recycled, beside a pile of plastic set to be sent to the landfill.

In the job that I took at the state-of-the-art recycling plant in my city, an endless river of consumed plastic passed me by. 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 loose plastics on the factory floor into this big trash pile.

Perusing the heap, I was stunned.

First, at the size of the pile.  There was so much plastic that just wasn’t valuable enough to warrant the energy to be recycled!  Poly-bags, phone cases, straws, coffee cups, and even surf shorts.  Second, I was shocked by at all the perfectly recyclable bottles, cans, and more that had bounced out of the complex apparatus around me and made it into the trash pile.

For me this was a jolting awakening.

Not Circular

Even if a piece of plastic is recyclable, even if it can technically be recycled forever, due to the fundamental inefficiencies in the system, inevitably, be it after a year or a century, it will end up in the land-fill pile.  In other words, even if the system is 70% efficient (most estimates are way lower) our plastic bottle has a 3 in 10 chance of being lost from the system each time around. It’s just a matter of time until its industrial luck runs out and it ends up in the biosphere.

But the problem with the system isn’t just this fundamental inefficiency, it’s also that it is fundamentally not circular. In my research around the world, I have observed that when plastic is ‘recycled’ and is turned into something else, it’s rarely into what it was first. A plastic PET bottle isn’t recycled into another PET bottle, but into a lower form of plastic.

Take for example, the pair of eco-surf-board shorts that I found in the pile.  The label said that they are “made from 100% recycled PET bottles”. Wow. Cool. However, there’s no mechanism in place that enables these to be recycled again! This same downward “Recycling” occurs with countless other types of plastic. Worn and dirty, the plastic can only be down-cycled into a form of plastic with less value. The likelihood of this plastic then being recycled is less with each cycle of “Recycling”. I had no choice but to sweep the shorts into the pile destined for the “land-fill” (a place that 60 years ago was a diverse and vibrant forest on the outskirts of the city).

It became clear to me that recycling isn’t a circle. At best, it is a spiral of endless material dispersion into the biosphere. Inexorably, despite all the equipment, all the energy, and all our best intentions, every molecule of plastic that we consume is ending up in the ecologies around us.

Oh... and the people

But it isn’t just the planet suffering from the industrial recycling system. There are the countless people swept into the grey web, into maintaining the nodes that perpetuate the industry.

Working the line was for me 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– my colleagues were often socially challenged or newly arrived immigrants who couldn’t yet speak English.

A recycler tightens down his load. Photo by Alexander Sattler during our visit to Suwung Dumpsite, Bali Indonesia, 2016

Around the world, the phenomenon is the same: jobs that have to do with recycling are consistently the very worst in the society. My job in Canada was a walk in the park compared to recyclers in South America picking through smouldering, fly infested dump-sites under the hot sun. In Asia, folks are pressed into relentless hours on manufacturing lines, smelting plants, and ships that turn that plastic into something else. Only a very few at the top of the chains benefit from this apparatus.

Just as the White Wizard at the top of his tower was able to distract the heroes of the Lord of the Rings with his apparent benevolence, the Illusion of Recycling works the same. Lulled into the belief that each piece of plastic can be neatly recycled, we continue buying and consuming plastic without a second thought.  Yet, when we understand the fundamental flaws in the system and see it on a global scale, it is no wonder that despite all the energy and effort put into at recycling, dumps are overflowing, rivers are clogged and giant patches of plastic are amassing in the oceans– while only those at the top of the tower prosper.

Recycling doesn’t reduce the flow of plastic into the biosphere. It increases it. Precisely because there is the illusion of a solution, plastic consumption remains unabated and more factories, more refineries and more container ships encircle the globe with ever more of our people manning their desolation, and ever fewer prospering.  Meanwhile, the plastic steadily leaks out, turning forests, fields and oceans into garbage patches.  A great grey web of darkness is enabled to spread its tendrils around the planet.  If this isn’t an evil illusion, I don’t know what is.

A surreptitious photo that inadvertently it captures the darkly colorful, raucous and hypnotic reality of recycling.

A Vision

One night on the late shift, working the conveyor belt separating plastics, I was lulled into a trance.   After six monotonous hours immersed in the endless river of consumption, I had a vision. I was struck by the simple yet profound realization:

We can do way better than this!

Recycling is a servant of the petro-capital economy. It is our unconscious creation, that our unconscious participation furthers. Just imagine if we put our conscious imagination and energy to work together on the same scale. Indeed it is already happening– the co-creation of the beautiful world we all know is possible.  People powered movements that make plastic precious are spreading virally, shifting us sure and steady to a world where we integrate with authentic ecological cycles.  A new age is emerging where our lives are back in harmony with the ecological cycles around us and we are mindful of every aspect of our participation.

At the end of the night shift, everything shuts down and is eerily quiet.

In the Lord of the Rings, Saruman wasn’t the real evil; he was a but a servant of a much older dark force.  In the same way, recycling itself is not our foe. Nor is plastic!  The quest of the heroes took them further than Saruman’s tower into the realm of the Dark Lord of Mordor. Beyond the piles of plastic, behind the cogs of industry and capital, lie the archaic paradigms that make our Mordor.  Only once the heroes make it to the very heart of Mordor and can put the darkness into the light, is the evil vanquished once and for all.

We live in an age that calls us to be heroes.  Where does your plastic come from? Where does it go when you are done? Whose purpose does it serve? How can we do better?

The heroes of the Lord of the Rings were compelled to journey into the darkness in order to step out of Saruman’s illusion.  It was the only way to move forward into the awaiting Age of Light.

Now, it is our turn.

Author's note:

In 2017 a landmark study in Science Advances confirmed my suspicions that indeed, the vast majority of our plastic, regardless of whether it is recycled or not, eventually ends up in the biosphere (91% of all plastic ever produced has ended up in the environment).  In 2019, investigative journalists confirmed that the recycling industry has been  "a lie by big oil to sell more plastic" and confirmed that the plastic industry is on track to be one of the most significant sources of carbon emissions.   Alas, plastic and its fate have faded off the headlines over the course of the corona virus epidemic. But in fact "the recent COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increased demand for single-use plastic, intensifying pressure on this already out-of-control problem" (think of all that hospital plastic).  Plastic evidently remains a pressing an issue.  But even more so, I believe it is a portal to that "Age of Light" (as I so optimistically put it!).  Next week I start a series of essays that delves deep into my vision of how we can in fact do way better.

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