Australians are diligent when it comes to recycling — but there’s a big problem with our current scheme, and its environmental impact is huge.
Now our recycling is being knocked back by China and Indonesia, is it time to face the truth about recycling?
I recycle. Of course I do. I’m not an environmental vandal. That’s what I always told myself anyway. But recent news from the recycling industry has me wondering. Is recycling any good at all?
A big shipping container of Australian plastics has been rejected by Indonesia. The Indonesian authorities have decided it is contaminated, and they are shipping it back to us. A big diesel-chugging cargo ship will bring it back to Australia. Not very environmentally friendly.
The recycling industry has always been hard to make work.
Even with free inputs it certainly doesn’t pay for itself. The only way to make recycling viable is to ship products offshore to places where labour is cheap.
But then, last year, China stopped taking the world’s recycling.
And suddenly the world had to face a great surplus of recyclables and the reality that to keep recycling out of landfill was going to cost a lot of money.
Recycling is now being stored in a lot of places in the hope we soon find a solution.
And now Indonesia is rejecting our recycling too. Things seem to be going from bad to worse.
THE ENERGY CYCLE
I have to say, this is not what I imagine when I drop my empty milk bottles in the recycling bin.
I imagine a clean green future for them, not being shipped halfway around the world and then sent back again.
It makes you wonder if the environmental cost of recycling is worth it.
The answer to that question depends a lot on what substance you’re talking about.
When it comes to saving energy, recycling aluminium is very good.
Aluminium uses a lot of energy to make the first time but not much to recycle. You can recycle it infinite times. You should definitely recycle aluminium.
Paper is good to recycle too. When you recycle paper, you save about half the energy of making it for the first time.
But plastic is different. Plastic doesn’t take much energy to make the first time.
And it uses a lot of energy to recycle. A truck has to come and get it from your house, and then it goes on a ship to Asia.
And then they sort it out on a conveyor belt, and finally they melt it down.
All that uses energy, and even then, plastic can only be recycled once. They make it into fleece clothing or railway sleepers. Food grade plastic is all fresh and new.
There’s only a sliver of energy saving in recycling plastic, although it does still reduce the amount going to landfill. (The debate over whether we’re actually short of spaces to put landfill is a whole other issue.)
BUT DOES IT *MAKE* US WASTE?
The costs of recycling are high. Recycling uses a lot of energy and money that we could spend on other environmental programs.
But the biggest cost of recycling could be in making us relax. The hierarchy goes like this: reduce, reuse, recycle. Reducing how much we use is far, far better for the environment than using something and recycling it.
Nobody wants to waste resources. The problem is recycling doesn’t feel like wasting things, even though it might only be a few per cent better than throwing things out.
Boston University researchers Monic Sun and Remi Trudel have found when you know in advance you can recycle, you waste far more.
They did an ingenious experiment to prove this. The researchers got students and told them they were being asked to sample juice.
One by one, they put each student in a room with four different kinds of juice and a lot of plastic cups.
Twenty-four students went into a room with only a rubbish bin, and 25 students went into a room with only a recycling bin. And the researchers counted how many cups they used.
The only difference between the two set-ups was the presence of the recycling bin for half the students, so this experiment was a good way to test if the ability to recycle makes people more wasteful.
The students who went into a room with only a rubbish bin didn’t always choose a new plastic cup for every type of juice. Many of them re-used the same cup for multiple juices. The average number of cups they used was 2.7.
But the students who saw the recycling bin used new cups with wanton abandon. The average number of cups they used was 3.48. In other words, they almost all used a new cup for every type of juice.
The researchers ran another experiment to check. Again they split students into two groups. This time they asked them to wrap a gift in a room that had either only a rubbish bin or a recycle bin. The ones in the room containing a recycling bin used more paper to wrap the gift.
Together, this seems to raise the question of whether knowing we are able to recycle plastic might make us more wasteful. Now that China is not taking our recycling might be a good time for us to check our behaviour.
Did we end up with all that stuff because we knew we’d feel OK about recycling it later? If so, the biggest cost of recycling could be its most hidden one: the way it makes us relaxed about buying all that packaging.
This article was published on news.com.au