Thursday, May 23, 2024


Dhaka Tribune

Is recycling a scam?

Here’s the truth about this common practice


Update : 30 Jan 2024, 03:46 PM

“Reduce, reuse, recycle.” An all-too familiar phrase, of which the “recycle” receives celebrity status in environmental discourse and similar initiatives, while its counterparts are left behind. This is not unintentional.

We tend to associate recycling with the image of our single-use plastic bottles that we throw in the trash. While less common materials may be recycled, the first image that pops into our heads, that of plastic bottles, is an inaccurate one.

To be brief: Recycling plastic is a scam. That image is nothing more than the narrative that big companies spent a nasty amount of money to instill in our heads.

This money could have been used to recycle their own plastic waste more effectively, but these corporations find it cheaper to simply manufacture new bottles. Not to mention the microplastics, which are tiny fragments that come, a problem that seems to be multiplying day by day. Besides, selling the “social responsibility” narrative is good advertisement, rather than recycling their existing filth.

Plastic is produced from fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas, which we already know to be one of the top contributors leading to the detriment of climate change. Yet, its presence is ubiquitous in every facet of our lives -- from the grocery package to your child’s diaper that you throw away. Despite the harm it does, we are made to be comfortable with its prevalence in our environment.

One of the reasons why we continue to accept this is perhaps because we imagine most of the plastics discarded from our respective homes-schools-offices somehow make their way to a recycling plant where they are reincarnated in new forms, and the cycle repeats. 

As you might have already guessed, this could not be further from the truth.

First of all, most post-consumer plastic waste is not even recyclable. Even in “developed” countries, most of what is thrown away does not end up being recycled. And recycling itself is an expensive exercise. 

Corporations need to replace plastic with better, safer materials which do not release harmful chemicals and microplastics, and are biodegradable. At this point, because they want to keep their costs low, you can do the math on whether they will take the expensive burden to clean your trash once they have sold you the product. 

Individual blame and individual gain

It’s hard to talk about recycling without addressing individual blame. The concept isn’t necessarily a complicated one to grasp: Ordinary people are sold necessities as basic as food and water wrapped in plastic that will last for thousands of years only to be thrown away in minutes, if not seconds.

We are told each of us is individually responsible to do something of this material that is produced in the millions of tons every year, plastic that will outlive most of us and our future generations. Environmental ideas such as policing the individual’s carbon footprint, how they manage to recycle unsustainable packaging, that is, plastic, essentially a result of flawed product design, are manufactured by the corporations themselves.

These powerful entities exploit individual blame to justify overproduction, more importantly, their waste. Corporations would use plastic rather than environmentally friendly materials to simply cut down costs and serve the interests of the colossal industries.

The levels of production and consumption are at an all-time high, but that’s a good thing, right? Shouldn’t that suggest that people have sufficient purchasing power, the economy is afloat, (more “experts” speculating about employment, economic growth, and its implications). For instance, when disasters such as clogged sewage systems as a result of urbanism meant to promote the economy do surface in the media, we are made to feel that we as citizens are responsible and have failed the nation. 

But is it the ordinary individual’s fault for not taking pleasure in single-handedly solving the consequences of unsustainable hyperproduction, and also, for forgetting the tragedies birthed by the ruling system? 

Who are they fooling?

Most consumers today are becoming more health and eco-conscious, and choosing better options when it’s available. Perhaps that’s why it’s especially tragic when they fall prey to greenwashing, when brands set aside a fat budget in order to specifically market themselves as environmentally sustainable. They sprinkle words such as “nature” and “earth,” while virtually having no association with either of these concepts; in fact, oftentimes, they are responsible for the destruction of what they promise to “save”. 

And how do they aim to “save”? Recycling, of course.

Ever wonder why the biggest sponsors of recycling (as corporate social responsibility and other gimmicks) happen to be the biggest plastic polluters? They are primarily concerned with conducting PR campaigns which merely speak about the matter in an effort to boost their own reach and image, having non-existent impact relative to all the pollution perpetuated by them in the first place. 

I’ll refer to a quote that concisely encapsulates what the issue is: “If your bathtub was overflowing, you wouldn't immediately reach for a mop. You'd first cut off the water at the source.”

Plastic pollution is not an isolated issue, it is inseparable from exploitation, disease, poverty, and neocolonialism. For instance, international organizations, such as Greenpeace, called out such a giant who advertises feminism for their product commercials but it is the poor women in the global south who are subjected to the consequences of rampant post-consumer plastic pollution from their products. It is a pivotal moment for us to ask the question, who is this social responsibility for? And who is its audience?

From blame to responsibility 

It is commendable when any individual goes out of their way to recycle, but if one looks at the statistics and research available on the matter, one may find it is not something that is effectively carried out behind the scenes. And the type of materials that are possible to recycle, even if they end up in the right time and place, are minimal. But that does not mean we should be apathetic; instead, it means the exact opposite. 

Living under an economic system that promotes hyper-individualistic culture, we may need to pause to ask ourselves what we owe each other, other species, in an ecosystem on a planet that holds all of us. You don’t have to be an anthropologist to feel that we are deeply connected, and without cooperation and support, we as a civilization cannot sustain. 

In an era of extinction of various species, of dying birds by our window chewing cigarette butts and candy wrappers, we should reevaluate our choices to accommodate, not all but only perhaps the one crow or old sparrow we see from our balconies. 

We need to look after ourselves and our neighbours because the institutions that promise to do so will not. We need to reclaim our power by rejecting their commodities and boycotting where it matters; doing our research has become a responsibility: We need to unlearn disposable culture, decline useless plastic products, and choose sustainable materials that last. 

We can start by shopping less, shopping small, and, perhaps, where possible, not shopping at all.

Ohama Raaz is a visual artist. She is also the Founder of Antobihin, an organization that offers plastic-free products.

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