Ellen Macarthur Foundation


Why waste should be food.

The idea that recycling is a ‘good thing’ pretty much pervades the formal schooling system, but it may be due for a long overdue rethink. Recent scientific investigations around recycled cardboard packaging made from old newspapers has thrown up some challenging results.

It seems that despite the use of inner plastic packaging mineral oils contaminating the recycled cardboard outer packaging can cross over into the contents, for example breakfast cereals, often breaking the food safety limits several time over. Not good. Other packaging news of recent weeks also prompts a rethink of a different but related kind as it is revealed that the overall environmental impact of using plastic bags may be less than that of replacement paper or long life cotton bags.

So what’s going on?

In the circular economy the basic principle is that waste = food. A quality of food that we all recognize is that it is nutritious not poisonous. The clue s in the name : food! Recycling in the naïve sense that is often communicated seems to ignore this rather important qualifier in the rush to assert that recycling is beneficial, but it is only beneficial if the materials are designed in the first place for the whole cycle, that they are designed for ‘fit’. Clearly newsprint is not.


This major hiccup in the cardboard business does not mean that recycling is a bad idea but that it has to be seen within a broader systems based approach to handling materials and keeping up or even enhancing their quality and suitability for purpose. The appropriate educational question is: under what conditions is recycling of ‘X’ a ‘good thing’? It’s the same sort of argument over plastic bags against paper or indeed long life cotton bags: without a sense of the bigger picture, in terms of how often a long life bag is used, the consequences of growing cotton in a particular way or of producing paper then the idea that plastic bags are bad and other choices are better is trivializing the entire debate, to say the least.

The backwash of there appearing to be problems around recycling – at least if seen in a naïve way – is not going to do much for behavioural change approaches to resource and waste issues but it argues strongly for more critical thinking and systems perspectives on all these matters wherever possible.

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