Recycling is a sham. (updated)

This post was originally written in 2014. It has been updated.



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 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.

The real solution is 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, whatever other stores 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.


captain-planetRecycling is something we’ve been told we can do to help do our part. It’s how we turn that waste into something useful.

Waste begins at the design. A packaging designer must first consider function, aesthetics, costs and benefits. They then (as I do) produce the product. But this product moves in a straight line.

The design responsibility is on the business. But the responsibility of waste management is on the government or local council. There is a disconnection with the problem and the root of the problem.

With the onset of recycling and people taking responsibility out of corporate waste; there is no incentive for designing packaging to be reusable – and because business is inherently amoral it may as well exploit the system. In fact, it encourages the system. Because the system is paid for by your rates, not the business.

It’s therefore in businesses best interest to keep the status quo of recycling in full swing. It’s also not what used to happen – all glass bottles used to be returned to the business for wash and re-use. But this stopped when recycling became more common. It was much cheaper to outsource the waste to the council. May as well jump on board!

An example: 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.

Read more: Electronic Waste problem on Wikipedia

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 gentle rebellion. But in a couple of months the business would get the message and business would adapt as soon as it could. 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 and plastic waste when they could have been 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.


As it is, recycling is better than throwing it out and as a philosophy it’s a legitimate practice.

The issue with recycling and waste collection in general is that it’s corporate welfare. It’s taking the responsibility of waste away from the producers of waste. The only way to make amends is by shifting end life responsibility back to those who create the waste. Only then, can a business be incentivized to design for the future.


Further reading and watching:

Book: The ecology of commerce (1993) by Paul Hawken

Video: The late Ray Anderson on The business logic of sustainability (15mins via TED). Recycling is bullshit

Book: Confessions of an eco-sinner: Travels to where my stuff comes from. Fred Pearce (2005).

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