Recycling, the feel-good story too good to be true

We’ve learned that sorting our waste to recycling was the ideal way to do our part, while it might actually be part of the problem?

It’s funny how we used to talk about recycling in school when we were kids. You throw your trash in the right bin, and all is right with the world.

Well, not exactly! As it turns out, we were only solving a tiny piece of a much larger problem. — but it's not too late to fix things.



We want our waste to be hidden - as well as its journey

In 2020, the E.U. generated 79 million tons of packaging waste. 
If this waste was stacked up, it would be as tall as 830 Eiffel Towers!

Most of this waste (32 million tonnes) came from paper and cardboard packaging and nearly 15 million tonnes came from plastic packaging. 

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How much of this was really recycled and where? Hard to say for sure.

Data fails to show what was recycled in the E.U. or outside of it. Some of the waste considered recycled in Europe was actually shipped outside of the E.U., simply because countries generate more waste than they can recycle at home.

It’s nearly impossible to know what is actually recycled. Sometimes, recycling figures refer only to the waste sent for recycling, not the waste that’s actually recycled.

The ever-growing, overwhelming flood of packaging waste into the market kills any chance of recycling keeping up. It’s especially true for single-use plastic packaging, where the recycling rate is low - and decreasing.

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While recycling is suffocating, two solutions appeared:

  • Burning waste “for energy.”

More and more countries are relying on the “waste-to-energy” technique to dispose of waste. While recycling has a positive impact, Waste-to-Energy is terrible. The energy savings are not nearly enough to make up for the emissions generated!

Packaging waste is often burnt or used for energy recovery, but this doesn’t reduce pollution. Burning waste releases CO2 and other toxic pollutants into the atmosphere.

  • Shipping waste away

Recently, a container ship carrying around 4,000 tonnes of waste (including paper) was intercepted off the coast of Indonesia. The illegal shipment had been covered up as soybean cargo and originated from the Netherlands.

The Netherlands is not alone. The vast majority of European countries are exporting their plastic waste!

The E.U. exported around 33 million tonnes of waste in 2020. Roughly half went to countries with high “waste mismanagement”.

Rubbish left or burned in open landfills illegal sites makes its final fate hard to trace. The European Commission estimates that between 15% and 30% of these exports could be illegal.

In 2018 you might remember that China, the world’s largest market for recycled waste, essentially shut its doors, partly due to documentary Plastic China.

The current world dumping ground is Malaysia. A Greenpeace Unearthed investigation found mountains of European waste in its illegal dumps.


Untitled (28)Plastic items from Europe and piles of waste at an illegal dumpsite in Malaysia. Photo: Jules Rahman Ong/Unearthed



Was packaging recycling ever going to be enough?

Recycling is as old as thrift. The Japanese were recycling paper in the 11th century and during the second world war, women’s nylons were turned into parachutes. Today, we recycle aluminum and reduce its carbon footprint by up to 95%.

In some cases, recycling is great. It was a great place to start but it’s a terrible place to stop.

It went sour in the 70s when we tried recycling household waste: random materials, food waste, oils, and cheap packaging. We’re now seeing a significant rise in boxes with the growth of e-commerce.

Here’s the basic problem:

All used packaging can be turned into new things. But picking it up, sorting it out, and processing it is costly and resource-intensive. Plastic and cardboard also degrade each time recycled, meaning they can’t be recycled more than once or twice, eight times for cardboard.

On the other hand, freshly made packaging is almost always less expensive and of better quality.



But then, how come we’ve been told that recycling was the way to go when all these issues exist?

The single-use industry could not keep on selling so much packaging as the concern over its waste as growing.

So the industry sold the public on an idea it knew wouldn’t work — that the majority of packaging waste could be, and would be, recycled.

Especially plastic.

Sell recycling, you’ll sell plastic!


If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they are not going to be as concerned about the environment,” Larry Thomas, former president of the Society of the Plastics Industry, known today as the Plastics Industry Association.

But the sad reality is that the industry already knew in the 70s that recycling could not handle the flow of packaging waste.

In all that time, less than 10 percent of plastic has ever been recycled.

There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis,” one industry insider wrote in a 1974 speech.


Reduce, reuse, recycle.

We don’t really mean that we’ve got to stop recycling. But we can’t rely on it that much. We’ve really got to reduce and reuse first.

We need to stop producing so much packaging waste in the first place – and that means pressuring brands to change their packaging practices.

Untitled (29)GAIA/Zero Waste Europe

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