Recycling and the circular economy

November 04, 2011
Salvage aluminium campaign, USA, 1942. Original image tweaked using TiltShift Maker.   © Alfred Palmer / Annette del Sur
Salvage aluminium campaign, USA, 1942. Original image tweaked using TiltShift Maker. © Alfred Palmer / Annette del Sur

One of the biggest confusions around a circular economy framework is that sparked by the word ‘recycling’. Surely a circular economy just means more recycling, more of what happens already? It’s especially relevant in education where recycling has become a byword for doing good things. It has also become an umbrella term and seemingly any form of materials recovery can come under ‘recycling’. Circular economy? Nothing to see here… go home.

This is very wide of the mark. Worse than this laziness around the word and its meaning is perhaps the delusion as to where recycling happens and then what happens to materials. The consumer, the individual tends to see the act of leaving materials aside for recycling or, strange to say, even buying products with a ‘can be recycled’ logo as an act of recycling. To some extent, who knows, they may feel that serious and clever industrial wizardry immediately follows and then, from the original material, useful products appears back as before, its magic! Hence a circular economy is a fancy phrase for more of this, and no doubt the source of some irritation around the needless multiplication of the terminology.

A touch of history might help clarify where we come in and where we are headed when it comes to putting recycling in a meaningful context.

In 1953, the State of Vermont passed a ban on disposable bottles. In the natural world, non-biodegradable items simply don’t exist. The idea of “throwing things away” does not come naturally to humans. It takes a careful attention to avoid the logical pitfalls of it, too; you must stay vigilant to not ask questions like, “What do you mean by ‘away’?” As a result, the natural response to disposable bottles seemed like, well, disposing of them. People would simply throw them from car windows. Then, as now, the lobbying of special interest groups held more sway than conscience or responsibility in legislative bodies, and then, as now, dairy farmers had a lot of pull in Vermont’s legislature. So, when the broken glass thrown from passing cars got into hay, and from there into the bellies of cows, and farmers started losing their cows, the Vermont legislature acted. At that time, it seemed obvious that a product designed to promote a particular behavior bore the responsibility for that, not the individuals who behaved in the manner the product promoted by design.

In response, the bottle manufacturers got together and created a group called “Keep America Beautiful.” Their 1971 advertising campaign starring Iron Eyes Cody – some trash flies from the window of a speeding car, landing at the feet of a majestic Indian. He turns, and we see a single tear roll down his stoic cheek as William Conrad sternly intones, “People start pollution; people can stop it.” Today, a ban like Vermont’s seems unthinkably radical. “[Keep America Beautiful’s] ‘great’ accomplishment was that they constructed garbage as the product of individual choices (emphasis added),” said Heather Rogers (1). “As an individual responsibility, and not one connected to the production process.” In other words, “personal responsibility” means that you bear responsibility for the trash that passes through your hands: not the people who produced it, not the system that leaves you no choice but to live as a consumer, not the laws that legislate away every other possible way of life.’

As the graphic below illustrates most bottles in the USA were at one time part of a refillable system where a few cents deposit on each bottle had the effect of sending schoolkids into the hedgerows and verges to collect up any which had escaped the intentions of their purchasers.


This changed as opportunities arose to centralise production, prompted as ever by ever cheaper oil and materials. Plastics and aluminium in particular were in surplus. The costs of disposal could be shifted onto the consumer, the local authority and the environment. The framing was excellent; the lobby groups “constructed garbage as the product of individual choices” (5). And it has stuck. In the same way so much of what is thought of as soon as the word ‘recycling’ is mentioned is also tied to the individual. Heather Rogers again:

“It’s really important not to couch it in individual terms, which is the way this discussion is always framed. I want to talk about the responsibility of manufacturers and the role that they play in this. When people talk about getting at the root of garbage and stemming waste at its source, they always target the householder, the individual consumer. That’s not the source of garbage. For every ton of household waste, there are more than 70 tons of manufacturing waste—mining, petrochemical production, etc. The vast majority of wastes are created during the manufacturing process, and that is where we should focus.”

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