Recycling is a misunderstood word. People often associate it as a positive action, with beneficial results for society. However, race-to-the bottom globalization of the waste trade has resulted in a situation where recycling is often not a service actually provided by global north countries, but something outsourced to the global south. Countries ship their waste 1000s of miles to be processed with no accountability or transparency as to ‘what these recycling processes’ consist of. Oftentimes, these processes are little more than backyard and/or informal operations in places with nonexistent environmental and labor law enforcement, that damage both the environment and the health of the workers (especially when processing plastics and e-waste, as workers really have no awareness of the chemical dangers of these materials). In this case in Indonesia, containers are marked as ‘recycling’ but really contain mixed waste. This intentionally-deceptive trade is happening more and more frequently now that China has stopped taking the world’s waste/recycling. Global north countries can afford to send the containers, and there is always someone in lax governance countries to take the bribe. In Sri Lanka, recently even hospital waste was found hidden within ‘recycling’ waste containers. I think that for materials to be truly ‘recyclable’ there needs to be means to process the materials within a 100mi radius, for instance, to make the processes accountable, to keep resources circulating within a bioregion, to minimize carbon footprints of transport, and to facilitate the materials awareness needed to minimize and eliminate toxic waste streams and replace with regenerative and nontoxic materials. There is no away, and acknowledging this opens up a window of opportunity to transform a broken system with creative, local responses for resource/materials accountability.
Follow more of Stiv’s work here at The Story of Plastic: https://www.storyofplastic.org/
What if we had ‘Packaging Facts’ similarly to how we have ‘Ingredients Facts’ mandated for products today? We know what is inside our food, but what about on the outside? These ‘Packaging Facts’ labels would be justified not only for the health of the consumer -due to potential chemical exposures from packaging- but also for ecological reasons, acknowledging packaging’s role in resource scarcity, global carbon footprints, increasing chemical exposure, conflict materials, and reliance on non-sustainable materials. This could help make more conscious and aware consumers and potentially help shift buying choices from packaging that is bad for health and the environment, to more local, nontoxic, renewable, and easily reused/circulated options. For instance, I would imagine a label to look and function something like this using the example of a PET plastic water bottle:
On the side of the PET bottle you’d see something like this (forgive me I am not a graphic designer) to break down the Facts of PET:
*Packaging Facts: A parody on ‘Nutrition Facts’
*Longevity = amount of time the material is estimated to remain in the environment.
*Origin = place of extraction of material (useful in determining conflict materials i.e. such as cobalt and also differentiating between supporting local and distant economies/economies of care or displaced economies)
*Transport = estimated transportation distance, for instance country of origin to port of entry, to show approximate carbon footprint. In this case I did a simple estimate between UAE and Los Angeles. This measurement can be helpful for those trying to source their foods locally, say within a 100mile radius. In this case, these transportation miles would really break the budget.
*Composition = to make people aware of the materials in their packaging. For instance, a product might be labeled ‘organic’ but the packaging could be chemically infused and even leeching into the product, therefore, not advisable. Also, as we try to transition from nonrenewable to renewable resources this will help make people aware of how purchases contribute to supporting these different systems.
*Percentage of Organic/renewable material: to what degree does this support sustainable or non-sustainable economy; restorative or nonrestorative practices.
*Chemical components/additives = specifically to help people become aware of the chemical components that make up certain products. The warning is like on cigarettes of what these additives can do (to help people be mindful of chemical exposure and potential risks). *Note: this is commenting on each additive, but not necessarily the cumulative factors of our pervasive chemical soup of modern society.
*QR Code : as recycling, upcycling, reuse, circular economy, and management are all contextually applicable, this allows customers to scan and see what is possible for this packaging in their area (say, within a 150mi radius). This code would also need to be updated for changes in laws/policy/practice. Additional information about packaging could be added here, for instance if the company of the product wants feedback on ‘likelihood of purchasing’ product packaged with a bamboo alternative, these sorts of feedback mechanisms could also be added, and more.
©️Katie Conlon Sept. 1, 2019
“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate” -Jung.
Even at the end of the day, if the waste management system works seamlessly, efficiently, it is still destroying and wasting resources at a faster and faster rate – the problem doesn’t just go away with efficient collection and transportation. That we have a material that we consider ‘waste’ is the issue. Before all materials had value and material was either ‘matter out of place’ or was biodegradable or if broken, fixable. But at some point in our human evolution we thought we’d flirt with being unnatural. We added things that we didn’t have a role for. Modernity became an obsession with the shiny and new, with novelty. Not with developing internally, but endlessly turning out new products, and things/objects became equated with progress. Plastic became ubiquitous because it could continually be designed as novelty, new things that you can use, new things to seemingly make life convenient. And this distraction was so alluring. But yet, this is an abusive relationship that comes at a cost. Everything we destroy has a price tag and we’re borderline destroying human society/consciousness with our current norms of materials use. What has become ‘normal’ – existing at the cost of the environment – is in effect very un-human. We are losing the connection with ourselves, each other, nature, when we get caught up in these processes.
Waste is the heartbeat of the multi-headed dragon of our modern social crisis. The faster we destroy things, the stronger the mechanism/dragon becomes. We’re taught to assuage fears and anxiety through consumption, but really this is a perpetual motion machine. More products are cheaply made and/or have planned obsolescence, more resources are needed – this is what drives our economy, what is driving climate change, inequality, resource scarcity, wars, and the like.
Consume, waste, consume, waste, this is the ongoing continuum. And managers think they are brilliant with schemes of ‘awaying’ and ‘displacing’ the waste. ‘We’ll just move it!’ we can pile it up, burn it, bury it, ship it away. The clever magicians are the ones who make it all disappear – fool you into not asking questions. Its magic! We made waste energy! There’s a ski slope on top! Not to worry, we even import waste! We’re so industrious, we heat our homes with waste – we’ll even heat the homes of the climate refugees! Oblivious to how it’s all come full circle, where ultimately people seek refuge from the conditions that were created by the countries they are fleeing to.
Western consumption norms have spread now to the entire globe – all nations are aspiring consumers; culture and connection has been swapped for economic growth. Even waste in global south countries has some level of the mentality of ‘displacement’– sent to marginalized communities within the country or to other global south countries – a hop-scotch of environmental justice and human rights issues. No one is taking responsibility and everyone is to blame. What will it take to lift the veil on the system that is dysfunctional? What will it take for people to be able to confidently hop off this treadmill?
*Tsunami of waste. Photo taken in Colombo, but it could be anywhere…
What can we learn from collapse, and how does the global response to material markets parallel with climate change?
The global recycling markets effectively collapsed in January 2018. It was not a slow decline, but a sudden jolt due to an abrupt shift in Chinese policy. China up until this point had been the ‘golden egg-laying goose’ of US, Australia, Japan, Europe, and basically the whole world’s recycling needs. It had been a near-perfect system (within a capitalist framework): collect waste/recyclable material and ship it back to China in the empty shipping containers China uses to send Chinese-made goods. Brilliant! Then China can use this waste/recyclable mostly plastic material to continue to make products (junk) to sell around the globe, ad infinitum. But then China realized that this system actually wasn’t good for them, that not only was all this plastic junking up China, but with China’s growing consumer economy of over 1 billion people, they have enough to manage on their own. Thus, with China’s National Sword Policy in 2018, global imports of recycling virtually stopped, and the market fell into total disarray and collapse.
As in any situation, the consequences of the scenario depend on the response to the action, and in this case the recycling industry was not prepared for China’s decision. Materials stockpiled in materials recovery fascilities across the globe, having no where to go. Some municipalites became desperate and began throwing recyclables into the waste bound for the dump or incinerator (but still told citizens they were ‘recycling’). Others found material buyers in other south Asian countries, often working through customs loopholes and using ‘race to the bottom’ tactics to find places with even less environmental restrictions. In many cases, containers were outright dumped in places like Malaysia, Cambodia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Many of these South Asian countries are fighting back, sending containers of waste back to their point of origin saying that the global south should not be the dumping ground for the global north. A year into the recycling crisis and the global recycling/waste crisis is far from over and is still unfolding, simultaneously with increasing consumption and creation of global waste. In market driven economies, waste and time stop for no one.
From the example of the global recycling market collapse we can reflect on lessons that pertain to the global climate crisis.
1.) The recycling industry was operating in a bubble for decades, within a system that was far from sustainable. But, ‘it worked’ so the industry kept up with the bluff that they were recycling. But as it were, ‘recycling’ as practiced was to send waste material half-way around the world to be processed under questionable labor and environmental circumstances (or maybe not processed at all and just dumped); just to be made into more disposable commodities to be shipped halfway around the world again. This is no sustainable materials system. Similarly, the global economy is operating within the bubble that we can continue to extract and consume fossil fuels just because ‘it works for us now.’ Never mind that we are living in a closed ecosystem with finite limits and resources. This is the short-sighted thinking that brings climate and ecological collapse. We should never get into the thinking-trap that current systems are permanent systems. When negative feedback arises, a system should always be able to adjust and change.
2.) The recycling industry waited for collapse to happen. The industry didn’t pre-empt the situation with alternatives. The situation could have easily been avoided had the fundamental nature of the system been questioned decades earlier – but people had been ‘ok’ to go along with the charade. How can we prompt leaders to agree to pop the bubble of complacency and make pro-active instead of reactive calls for climate change?
3.) Material flows (waste, resources, recycling) and climate change are both global issues. They manifest at local levels (local waste streams, local climate impacts), but on the whole these issues are globally-connected and interlinked. Thus, in the case of the recycling crisis, when the US ships material to another country other than China, this doesn’t actually solve the problem, it just ‘shifts the burden.’ This might be a short-term solution for getting the material ‘away’ or ‘distancing,’ but it actually creates more problems through environmental injustices, waste potentially loose in the environment, and long-term impacts of such materials. ‘Shifting the burden’ and ‘race-to-the-bottom’ tendencies mean that instead of a collective, visionary, workable solution we have individualized (or individual countries) working off of the lowest, fear-based and greed-based tendencies to shift the problem, responsibility, and accountability over to someone else. But, microplastics, increasing toxicity from chemicals, hazardous wastes, these know no boundaries. Ultimately, environmental problems from waste come back to haunt us all. Similarly, climate change considerations cannot but pushed aside, as all delaying and shifting of the burden comes back in another form (think climate refugees; food scarcities; conflict etc).
4.) In the case of the recycling industry collapse, the response was really a prisoner’s dilemma of every country/country’s processors looking out for their best interest. When individual entities carve out their own, self-appropriate responses we all suffer. Moreover, ‘race to the bottom’ economic decision-making is beyond justice. For instance, just because someone could pay to send it, doesn’t mean Filipinos should have to suffer with piles of waste from the west. We need leaders that operate with ecological and mindful decision-making; leaders that work with an awareness of the world system (limits and capabilities). In the case of climate change, if we have individual countries or megacities calling the shots for their favor, then collectively humanity and the environment lose (case in point, Bolsonaro’s Amazon destruction).
These are just a few of the parallels that I think can shed light on how we should think about when and how systems collapse. If we are prepared to responds collectively and creatively – and even pre-empt such collapse – instead of having disaster we can actually have positive change, a coming-together, and a bridging of the divide.
Trying to understand waste issues is like pulling a string and unraveling a whole sweater. Processes that are more ‘masked’ or ‘hidden’ in the US or Europe or Japan, are laid bare in places like India. A lot of people complain about ‘mis-management’ of waste here. I hear and read a lot expressions like, “If it was just picked up, or, if people would just stop littering!” However, the situation is much deeper than this. Moving waste from one location (the canal, the street, the beach, etc) to a dump or ‘zone of sacrifice’ just masks the problem as in the West. Just because it is not in a place that you see it everyday, doesn’t mean the problem is solved!
Tackling the waste issue like this asks nothing of the root cause of: Why is there so much ‘waste’ material in the first place? If we take a deeper look at the materials we use, we can see that some materials really shouldn’t be in circulation in the first place. Plastic packaging, for instance, not only is it designed to be thrown away, but it is full of all sorts of chemical additives that are known health issues, endocrine disruption, cancer, hormone imbalance, to name a few.
Companies are now trying to justify their plastic use by saying ‘Lets create recycling, let’s create circular economy!’ However, do we really want to design highly complex industrial systems just to manage a waste material that is harmful to humans and the environment, and ultimately shouldn’t be used in the first place? Do citizens really want to pay for company’s bad decision-making? Because, ultimately it is the citizen taxpayers and local governments that are fronting the bill to manage waste for companies.
In India, one out of every four dollars that Nestle makes is due to the ubiquitous Maggi noodles – a food product that is packaged in single-use plastics that end up as waste in seconds (Not to mention that Maggi is full of MSG, and other awful unnatural ingredients that add to the Indian ill-health epidemic and displaces natural food choices). Packaging is a choice that companies make to increase their profits; it is a design choice. If companies are willing and care about the social and ecological repercussions of their industry, they can design another system. We are only limited by our beliefs that the system is permanent. We can change, if we really want to.
When looking at the above picture, who is responsible? Citizens, local governments, or does it require unpacking the whole system that is designed to create such waste? A bit of a trick question as each level, from the individual to the collective has their role, but, without challenging the generation of products designed to create waste, local citizens are no match for market forces that continue to pump out such material. Citizens can begin by saying ‘No!’ to what they don’t want, and ‘Yes!’ to what contributes to healthy local communities
It was tumultuous to have to leave Sri Lanka right after the bombings in April. It is a country I have grown to love and appreciate for the warmth and hospitality of the people; the temples and spirituality; the biodiversity and incredible landscapes; the thousands of years of plant medicine knowledge; the most intricately spiced and delicious vegetarian food on the planet; amongst other things.
This campaign is an effort to reframe the image that Sri Lanka received after the terrorist bombings. I think it is equally a message to Sri Lankans, as well as the world, to think positive in the spirit of ‘fall down 7 times, but get up 8.’
I agree with everything in this campaign, minus the glorification of the shipping! (Freight ships are notorious for dumping oil just offshore…but that’s another topic.
Mt. Lavinia Beach Sri Lanka,
An optimistic sized globe to contain the large quantities of plastic that wash up on this beach. It started out properly segregated into just PET bottles (which have a market value, so in theory someone will pick it up) but as the months went on I saw a whole bunch of other material tossed in here, the ball filled up, and it got smelly/covered in flies. I am not sure who the conceptualizers of this project are, I am sure they had a good intention, however the execution was not carried out so well.