Before you burn me at the stake, you must at least hear my plea.
I know, it’s our weekly feelgood. We’re all doing our part to reduce, reuse and recycle. But it’s just that that is the problem: recycling is a sham.
Of course, it’s better than throwing all of your rubbish into the bin but recycling as we know it is not the answer. We’ve created a downward spiral that’s not getting better any time soon; the solution requires a paradigm shift in responsibility. It’s hard. Really hard. But the challenges we face are immense.
A sobering thought.
When you next go into a supermarket take a look at the products on the shelf and note: everything here will end up somewhere else. The food, of course will fill your bellies but the packaging goes ‘elsewhere’: to our recycle bins and to our landfills.
The point is that nothing is ‘thrown out’, it’s simply ‘moved elsewhere’.
And the scary part comes upon realising this is just one single supermarket. Zoom out and see the many other supermarkets all through the country, and then the world, and then dot in the other department stores, restaurants etc and then consider this alarming fact according to the story of stuff: for every bag of rubbish a household produces, businesses have produced 70x that getting it to you.
We have a problem.
Recycling is something we’ve been told we can do to help do our part. It’s how we turn that waste into something useful.
It starts at the design of a product. A developer will consider packaging that safely and cost effectively packages the goods whilst looking good and has considered the end life. We’ll revisit this later.
From here I’m going to focus on glass bottles because it’s the part that I am the most connected with, and it’s also a nice analogy of the situation as a whole.
Most of the expense of a glass bottle isn’t the materials, it’s the energy use and the supply chain. Consider the high temperature needed to melt and form the glass and the worldwide freight and logistical supply chain to get bottles from say, Italy to New Zealand. It is the major expense, above the bottle itself. As a point of reference a beer bottle (high volume production) will cost around 30-50c per bottle. My bottles cost approx $1.95+gst per bottle ex Auckland by the pallet.
The only bottles made in New Zealand are made from recycled glass by a company called O-I, who can make any bottle (but minimum order for atypical bottles is 1 million units so beer and wine bottles are the main bottle made in NZ), and I suppose custom pieces from glass blowers which would cost about $40-$70/bottle. Manufacturing bottles, even if made in NZ still has a considerable energy cost, despite not having to ship it from around the world, whether it be from recycled materials or new.
Glass bottles are of course, recyclable; so after use they go in your recycle bin and are carried away, sorted into colours and then in NZ, around 60% of the material used for making new glass is from recycled glass (called cullet); it’s then melted down and reformed into new bottles. The rest is broken down into dust and used as filler in roads. For every metric tonne of glass that is recycled instead of being made from scratch, 315kg carbon dioxide is saved from going in the atmosphere.
It sounds pretty good. So good in fact, many large corporations are getting behind your recycling effort: Coca-Cola Amatil, Frucor, Lion Nathan, Foodstuffs etc. Check out what they have to say at the Glass Packaging Forum, a non-profit organisation whose ‘function is to divert bottles from landfills’. You’ll definitely come away with warm fuzzies, it’s wonderful stuff.
But lets just step back here and compare recycling to a better alternative: washing the bottle. Suddenly, recycling becomes an absolute waste of energy.
Statistics point heavily in the favour of recycling when you compare recycling to filling landfills, but recycling is a world apart from simply re-using packaging that already exists.
But here’s the real crunch: the onus to recycle is on you, not the company producing the waste: there is a disconnection with the problem and the root of the problem.
Lets go back to that initial design of a products packaging: The price of thinner, single use glass bottles is cheaper than one that can be washed. Despite most of the cost being in the supply, that little materials cost can still be littler. Also, plastic bottles are significantly cheaper than glass. Remember when we used to get our milk in reusable glass bottles? Well the movement is a trend throughout the world.
(image courtesy of treehugger.com)
It’s a trend throughout the world because a company can offset the cost of disposal to you. With the onset of recycling and the people taking responsibility out of corporate waste; there is no incentive for designing packaging to be reusable -it may as well exploit the system. The system that is paid for by your rates.
A side-story, and a problem far greater than bottles: E-waste.
In the U.S., around 400 million consumer electronics are discarded every year. There is a growing mountain of electronic waste that the US government has no idea what to do with. The difficulty of e-waste is that traces of toxic metals seep into landfills so e-waste must be dismantled by hand, so the cost of getting rid of this waste is huge. Unfortunately, much e-waste is shipped overseas to developing countries with cheap labour and laxed environmental laws. We call this recycling. New Zealand does this too.
Indeed, low prices carry a high cost.
So what if we put the onus on the companies and reconnected the waste with the design?
Imagine a scenario where you don’t buy your TV, instead you have it on a long term lease. At the end of its cycle, when you’re ready for a new one, you return it to where you purchased it and get a small rebate. Since the company who made it knew it was going to come back, they designed it to have re-usable components, degradable parts or whatever it takes to deal with this product at the end of its life. If it can’t deal with it, then it has to dispose of it and pay the cost of doing so, reflected in the price of the product. The incentive for the company becomes that of less waste and more product, or products that last. Of course, we pay more for our products at the time of purchase but in that price is the cost of disposal. A truer reflection that isn’t warped by externalisation of costs.
It must be pretty tough designing electronics to be competitively tiny, cheap and of amazing technical performance as it is regardless of its end life. End life is not a priority; if it was, this problem would be fixed with the same competitive zeal and efficiency of technological advancement.
Back to our bottle scenario
In Dunedin we have a hero named Tony Culling who owns a company in his spare time called Smartbottles.
It is essentially a bottle washing service. With collection points around the South Island, bottles placed in are returned to him for washing, which he sells to some beer companies and home brewers etc.
The bottles go through a machine with a conveyor. It has various spray systems and washing areas that ensure the bottle comes out sparkly clean and can even lead on to a filling and packaging station.
The problem is, with the movement towards bottles that are cheaper, thinner and unfortunately non-reusable, most bottles now break in a temperature fit for sanitisation. Also, many bottles that can be washed are recycled instead. So a company considering what bottle to use has a simple decision: it’s cheaper to be wasteful by using a non-refillable bottle. Unfortunately this decision is more ‘expensive’ for all of us.
This system of washing bottles for re-use isn’t unique or rare, in fact it’s what we used to do and it’s still being done in Germany and many other European countries. (How reusing bottles works in Germany – paying a “pfand” or ransom on your bottle which you get back on return.) The point is, there’s a glimmer of hope for a much more efficient system to deal with bottles.
A paradigm shift
Consider this: you buy your groceries, take off the packaging, fill your own containers and leave the rubbish there at the supermarket. Not just you but also a handful of others every day.
In a couple of days there’d be signs up saying you can’t leave your rubbish. Keep doing it and in a couple of weeks there’d be even more resistence to this rebellion. But in a couple of months there’d be a reverse supply chain set up, sustainable product packaging and whatever it takes to satisfy the customer – because the feedback, responsibility and the cost of disposal is coming back to the company.
Simplistic? Idealistic? Unrealistic?
How is it that we’ve set up a nationwide system to collect, destroy and then reform millions of glass bottles that were a wash away from being ‘as new’? We’ve let this happen by taking away the responsibility away from business and filling it with with our own collective stupidity.
The current system of recycling is an inefficient, non-viable ongoing pseudo-solution that we’ve been green washed into.
I have been offering $2 returns on Quick Brown Fox and Lazy Dog bottles, 250ml and 500ml since I began. I’d be lying if I told you this was purely for environmental reasons – this is an economic advantage: bottles cost me $1.95+gst per bottle even when buying by the pallet, and i’d rather buy them from you, my customers.
I get about 1-5% of my bottles returned and it breaks my heart to think you are throwing it into the recycle bin; it’s come all the way from Italy!
Many of my bars around Dunedin know to keep them for my collection, and I get more since I’ve been at the Otago Farmers Market but getting them returned from the rest of the country is difficult – I can offer courier tickets, address labels and extra incentives to make it easy but unfortunately, as experience suggests, I am one bottle amongst thousands; recycling is just that much easier.
So should recycling be banned?
Well, it’s better than throwing it out and as a philosophy it’s legitimate practice. But the way we recycle is a sham – it’s corporate welfare funded by rate payers. We need to shift end life responsibility back to those who create the waste. Otherwise the connection is lost and the incentive to actually reduce waste is void. We have an ongoing problem because of this disconnection.
Shift the responsibility back. Return your waste to those producing it.
PS. Return your empty QBF bottles to me at the Otago Farmers Market on Saturday mornings ($2 cash back or $5 off another bottle), by dropping at Salisbury House, 106 Bond St. Dunedin, or drop ’em at any of the Smartbottles collection points.
Further reading and watching: