The current global economic model of production and consumption is heavily dependent on the use of natural resources, and it has been suggested that this is one of the main reasons why the natural environment and climate are in a worrisome crisis (UN, 2020). Consumer goods and services are, more often than not, packaged with unsustainable materials that take centuries to dissolve, and are polluting the environment. The massive production of plastic and other similar materials, as well as their immediate discarding after one use, plagues the ocean, river waters, whole cities, and landfills.
In this economy of abundance, the population is driven to produce more, buy more and discard more, always eager to fulfil its consumerism-based fictitious wishes that seem to have no end. According to projections, by 2050 the planet is expected to house 9.7 billion people, all with their own separate needs, behaviours, and consumption patterns (Ibid.). The natural resources necessary to sustain them can only come from three planets the size of the Earth (Ibid.), something that is unattainable and insurmountable. It will be impossible to continue fulfilling this business model’s standards if there are no substantive changes in the economy’s makeup.
Istock, (n.d.) Less than 10 per cent of all plastic ever produced has been recycled. [Illustration]
In the past decades, as the environmental movement started to gain momentum, people were guided to recycle as that was what they could do to ‘save the planet.’ What they were not adequately informed about, however, was that recycling is not wholly sustainable, and should be the last resort when all other options have been explored and eliminated (The Green Sprint, 2022). In effect, there is little truth to the fact that recycling limits environmental degradation. One argument supporting the practice of recycling is that, at the very least, waste and plastic scraps do not end up littering the environment when discarded. However, what most people do not take into consideration is that, in order to recycle materials and produce other goods, carbon dioxide is also emitted into the atmosphere. The first step to the recycling process, in fact, is to bring the product back to its raw material state and reformat it to the desired new state. (Ibid.). To facilitate such a process, energy is used, and greenhouse gas is released into the air, further affecting the climate.
A further important element that most people are unaware of is that the large amount of waste found in recycling bins never actually gets recycled, but, more often than not, is discharged into the same disposal destination as regular waste (Franklin-Wallis, 2020). Related to this topic, the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal of 2019, in effect since January 1st 2021, is the basic international agreement that handles the transportation and trade of waste meant to be discarded or recycled: it thus represents an effort meant to manage the disposal of plastic waste that for years has been wrongfully addressed and has severely affected the environment.
Ministry of Waste (n. d.). An Indonesian Landfil [Photo]
These observations are not meant to incriminate the recycling process, since it does require less additional materials and natural resources and has a slightly lower carbon footprint than the process of producing consumed goods from scratch. The extraction of virgin materials is avoided, and so are the gas emissions that would result from energy consumption and the mining process (King County, 2018). Additionally, a further benefit of recycling is the number of new jobs that have been created in the sector to bring it to fruition (Guillot, 2020). Even acknowledging such advantages, however, recycling has a limited impact on minimizing greenhouse gas emissions, while maintaining a high cost. In general economic terms, the cost of labour has increased, while the cost of raw materials is lower when compared to what it was a few years or even centuries ago. (Tierney, 2015). It has also been noted that when consumers are aware that they can ‘hypothetically’ recycle their purchases, they consume more and feel guilt-free (Nissenbaum, 2021). In certain extreme situations, consumers, driven by their immense guilt and the wish to "save the appearances," have discarded general waste to recycling bins to make themselves feel and look better (Bawden, 2020)
At any rate, recycling can only offer limited benefits. In the beginning, it was part of the linear economy model that follows the pattern of make-use-discard, and supplementally recycle. Yet the linear model is a one-way concept. It has heavily depleted natural resources; encouraged mining, drilling, and logging, while polluting the natural environment (Mayes W., Hull S., Gomes H., 2022). What has been offered as the optimal option for managing and minimizing waste production overflow is the new concept of the circular economy. The assumed cycle involves a make-use-share-reuse-remake-repair and then recycle process. The idea is that it extends the life cycle of products and reduces waste and energy consumption, leading to fewer greenhouse gas emissions (European Environment Agency, 2020).
Uswitch, 2022. Sustainable fashion: How to reduce your fast fashion environmental impact. (Diagram)
The European Union, within the framework of the Green Deal (2019), has presented the Circular Economy Action Plan For a Cleaner and more Competitive Europe (COM/2020/98 final), and wishes to implement a circularity in the production process and to design sustainable products. The target is to switch to a production and consumption model that provides durable, reusable and repairable products with increased energy and resource efficiency, increased recycled contents, high-quality manufacturing and a reduced environmental footprint. If implemented correctly, the circular economy is expected to offer 700,000 jobs until 2030 in the EU alone (European Parliament, 2021). From an international legal standpoint, relevant to the circular economy is the 12th of the Sustainable Development Goals of the United Nations, focused on responsible production and consumption. The Goal acknowledges the carbon footprint and environmental degradation that the current linear model has caused, while bringing attention to the changes that are necessary around the world. Sustainable consumption and production are deemed key components to low-carbon, green and richer communities.
Recycling is not a negative strategy to abandon. However, the current patterns of production and consumption, in addition to the use of biomass, metals minerals, and the burning of fossil fuels, require a much more massive and ambitious undertaking. Economic growth needs to be decoupled from natural resource use. The management of materials is expected to enter a new era of efficiency, sustainability and circularity, provided that the global community will proceed with caution and accountability. Circular economy policies, climate management, infrastructure and all relevant policy domains should be coordinated at a national, regional and international level for optimal results. Planetary boundaries need to be set on natural resource use as the world learns to reuse materials and create a new normal based on a circular economy in the nearest possible future.
Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. (2019). International Agreements on Transboundary Shipments of Hazardous Waste. US Epa. https://www.epa.gov/hwgenerators/international-agreements-transboundary-shipments-hazardous-waste#basel
Bawden, T. (2020, October 8). Half of Britons suffer recycling guilt – and grab rubbish from bins to put in the green box. Inews.Co.Uk. https://inews.co.uk/news/environment/half-britons-suffer-recycling-guilt-shame-rubbish-bins-689055
European Environment Agency. (2020, July 9). Cutting greenhouse gas emissions through circular economy actions in the buildings sector. https://www.eea.europa.eu/themes/climate/cutting-greenhouse-gas-emissions-through/cutting-greenhouse-gas-emissions-through#:%7E:text=In%20the%20buildings%20sector%2C%20selected,emitted%20across%20buildings’%20life%20cycles.
European Parliament. (2021, March 3). Circular economy: definition, importance and benefits | News | European Parliament. Europarl. https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/economy/20151201STO05603/circular-economy-definition-importance-and-benefits
European Union. (2019, October 12). A European Green Deal. European Commission - European Commission. https://ec.europa.eu/info/strategy/priorities-2019-2024/european-green-deal_en
European Union. (2020, March 11). COMMUNICATION FROM THE COMMISSION TO THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT, THE COUNCIL, THE EUROPEAN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL COMMITTEE AND THE COMMITTEE OF THE REGIONS A new Circular Economy Action Plan For a cleaner and more competitive Europe. EUR-Lex Europa. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/ALL/?uri=COM:2020:98:FIN
Franklin-Wallis, O. (2020, September 23). “Plastic recycling is a myth”: what really happens to your rubbish? The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/aug/17/plastic-recycling-myth-what-really-happens-your-rubbish
Guillot, L. (2020, September 21). How recycling is killing the planet. POLITICO. https://www.politico.eu/article/recycling-killing-the-planet/
King County. (2018). Climate change, recycling and waste prevention from King County’s Solid Waste Division - King County. https://kingcounty.gov/depts/dnrp/solid-waste/programs/climate/climate-change-recycling.aspx#:%7E:text=Recycling%20helps%20reduce%20greenhouse%20gas,extracting%20or%20mining%20virgin%20materials.
Mayes W., Hull S., Gomes H., (2022). Chapter 22 - From linear economy legacies to circular economy resources: Maximising the multifaceted values of legacy mineral wastes, Circular Economy and Sustainability, Elsevier, Pages 409-431, ISBN 9780128198179, https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-819817-9.00009-0.
Minou & Pamela (2022, February 21). Why Recycling Should Be Our Last Resort. The Green Sprint. https://thegreensprint.com/why-recycling-should-be-our-last-resort/
Nissenbaum, D. (2021, September 27). Recycling won’t solve the plastic waste crisis alone. World Economic Forum. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2021/09/reduce-reuse-compost-why-recycling-alone-won-t-solve-the-plastic-crisis
Tierney, J. (2015, October 3). Opinion | The Reign of Recycling. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/04/opinion/sunday/the-reign-of-recycling.html
United Nations (2020, August 11). Sustainable consumption and production. United Nations Sustainable Development. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/sustainable-consumption-production/
Image 1. Istock n.d. Less than 10 per cent of all plastic ever produced has been recycled found in Waite-Taylor, E. (2021, March 18). It’s Global Recycling Day: Which brands reward you for returning old clothing, beauty products and tech? The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/extras/indybest/global-recycling-day-2021-brands-recycle-programme-no-waste-b1817902.html
Image 2. Ministry of Waste. (n.d.). About. https://www.ministryofwaste.co/
Image 3. Gallizzi, B. (2022, March 8). Sustainable fashion: How to reduce your eco impact. Uswitch. https://www.uswitch.com/gas-electricity/green-energy/sustainable-fashion/