Over the last five years, I’ve been working on the front lines of the struggle with plastic. I’ve been visiting dump sites and recycling centers around the world to discover for myself what really happens to plastic. In 2015, I took a job at a recycling facility in Canada, to find out what happens to recycled plastic in my own country. I’ve never looked at recycling the same way again.
Yes, ‘Evil’ is a strong word– especially for an activity that most of the world thinks of as ‘Good’. However, after all that I have observed, I have come to have deep doubts about Recycling’s benevolence. There is an ominous reality lurking behind it that we ignore at the peril of people and planet.
For those of you who have read or seen the Lord of the Rings, you will remember Sauroman, the ‘White Wizard’. Everyone thought he was a good guy. Just like the characters in the story, as a kid reading the books, I was fooled too. After all, he wore a white robe, lived in a grove of oaks, and seemed concerned about the world.
But not all is as it seems.Recycling, adorned in its green robe, is a lot like Sauroman. Perhaps you’ve already had your suspicions– seeing a ditch filled with plastic or hearing about a giant island of plastic in the ocean.
In the novel, the heroes fall for Sauroman’s façade of goodness to their peril: While they are distracted, Sauroman, in service of an ancient dark force, schemes to take control of Middle Earth. Recycling, on our Earth, is doing the exact same thing.
So, what is really going on?
First, let’s get semantic– the illusion begins with a misuse of the word recycle. To be clear, there’s natural recycling, and then there’s Industrial ‘recycling’. Recycling, in the true sense of the word, occurs in the ecologies around us. When a leaf falls from a tree, it becomes food for a host of microorganisms and insects, which then benefit others. The leaf is broken down into the very building blocks that another tree will use to grow again and sprout new leafs. In other words, 100% of its nutrients are being sublimely cycled into the infinite circles of life. This all happens with seamless efficiently, within a few meters of the tree.
When a plastic bottle is tossed into a ‘recycling’ bin, it begins a process of a fundamentally different sort. First, there is nothing local or sublime about industrial recycling. While in the system, the bottle is swept along a noisy, high-energy journey around the planet. Much of North America’s plastic ends up being shipped to Asia for processing. Much Asian plastic gets sent to the rest of the world for consumption. The journey of a humble bottle spins a web around the planet involving countless miles of transportation, massive container ships, and roaring trucks hurtling down our highways. The plastic bounces from one node in the gray network to another– from a raucous recycling center, to a refinery, to a fuming factory, to a massive mall– then back again. Very much unlike the subtle local cycles in a forest, an immense amount of energy is expended.
Also very much unlike ecological cycles, the journey of a piece of plastic is not infinite. The fact is there is nothing circular about industrial recycling.In the job that I took at the state-of-the-art recycling plant in my city, an endless river of consumed plastic passed me by. The goal of the factory was to separate all the valuable plastic into the right piles, and let the plastics without value through. The value-less plastic went through to the land-fill pile. My job was often to sweep up the factory floor into this trash pile.
Perusing the heap, I was stunned.
First, at the size of the pile. There were so many types of plastic that just weren’t valuable enough to warrant the energy to be recycled! Poly-bags, phone cases, straws, coffee cups, and even surf shorts. Second, I was shocked by at all the perfectly recyclable bottles, cans, and more that had bounced through the complex apparatus around me and made it into the trash pile.
For me this was a jolting awakening.
Even if a piece of plastic is recyclable, even if it can technically be recycled forever, due to the fundamental inefficiencies in the system, inevitably, be it after a year or a century, it will end up in the land-fill pile. In other words, even if the system is 70% efficient (most estimates are way lower) our plastic bottle has a 3 in 10 chance of being lost from the system each time around. It’s just a matter of time til it’s industrial luck runs out and it ends up in the environment.
But the problem with the system isn’t just about inefficiency, its also about not being a circular. In my work with waste around the world, I have observed that when plastic is ‘recycled’ and is turned into something else, its rarely into what it was first. A plastic PET bottle isn’t recycled into another PET bottle, but into a lower form of plastic.
Take for example, the pair of eco-surf-board shorts that I found in the pile. The label said that they are “made from 100% recycled PET bottles”. Wow. Cool. But… there’s no mechanism in place that enables these to be recycled again. This same down-ward “Recycling” occurs with countless other types of plastic. Worn, dirty, the plastic can only be down-cycled into a form of plastic with less value. The likely hood of this plastic then being recycled is reduced with each cycle of the “Recycling”. Inevitably, the plastics ends up in the biosphere.
It became clear to me that recycling isn’t a circle, it is a best a leaking downward spiral into the biosphere. Inexorably, despite all the equipement, all the energy, and all our best intentions, every molecule of plastic that we create and consume is ending up in the ecologies around us.
But it isn’t just the planet suffering from the industrial system that spirals plastic downwards. There are the countless people swept into the gray web, into the nodes that perpetuate the industry.
Working the line, was for me a fascinating first hand experience in recycling, but, it wasn’t pleasant. In fact it was one of the least pleasant jobs in the entire city. Only folks who couldn’t find other jobs took this one– my colleagues were often socially challenged or newly arrived immigrants who couldn’t yet speak English.Around the world, the phenomenon is the same: jobs that have to do with recycling are consistently the very worst in the society. My job in Canada was a walk in the park compared to recyclers in South America picking through smoldering, fly infested dump-sites under the hot sun. In Asia, folks are pressed into relentless hours on manufacturing lines, smelting plants, and ships that turn that plastic into something else. Only a very few at the top of the chains benefit from this apparatus.
Just as the White Wizard at the top of his tower was able to distract the heroes of the Lord of the Rings with his apparent benevolence, the Illusion of Recycling works the same. Lulled into the belief that each piece of plastic can be neatly recycled, we continue buying and consuming plastic without hesitation. Perilously, we are oblivious to the fact that every single molecule of plastic that we consume, recycled or not, will inevitably end up in the biosphere. We thus ignore the fact that for each plastic bag/toy/cup consumed another is made to take its place.
Yet, when we understand the fundamental flaws in the system and see it on a global scale, it is no wonder that despite all the people and machines working at recycling, dumps are overflowing, rivers are clogged and giant islands of plastic are amassing in the oceans.
Recycling doesn’t reduce the flow of plastic into the biosphere. It increases it. Precisely because there is the illusion of a solution, plastic consumption remains unabated and a great gray web of darkness is enabled to spread its tendrils around the planet.One night on the late shift, after six unending monotonous hours separating plastic on the trance inducing conveyor belt, I had a vision. I was struck by the realization: We can do way better than this!
Recycling is a servant of the capital industrial complex. It is our unconscious creation, that our unconscious participation furthers. Just imagine if we put our conscious imagination and energy to work together on the same scale. Indeed it is already happening– the cocreation of the beautiful world we all know is possible. It is just a matter of shifting our focus, learning from nature’s true methods of cycling, and harmonizing with the ecological cycles already around us.In the Lord of the Rings, Sauroman wasn’t the real evil; he was a but a servant of a much older, ingrained and dark force. In the same way, recycling itself is not our foe. Nor is plastic! The quest of the heroes of the Lord of the Rings was to the very source of darkness and evil. Then, once vanquished, Sauroman is exposed as a puppet, a harmless man in a tower.
We live in an age that calls us to be heroes. Its time to face the darkness head on. Where does your plastic come from? Where does it go when you are done? Who’s purpose does it serve? I urge you to find and follow the true destination of the plastic you use everyday.
The heroes of the Lord of the Rings were compelled on a perilous quest into the heart of the darkness and to step out of Sauroman’s illusion. It was the only way to move forward into the awaiting Age of Light.
Now its our turn.
Russell Maier is a regenerative designer and one of the leaders in the global ecobrick movement. He is a principal in Global Ecobrick Alliance. Russell is proudly 100% zero waste– he makes ecobricks with his plastic, composts his biodegradeables, burns his paper, builds with his bottles, and makes sure he doesn’t buy anything that can’t be re-cycled in any of these ways.
This essay was originally written in January 2015. I have been reworked and republished it a couple times since, as I try to capture my evolving insights into the dark world of waste.
One night, working the late shift at the factory, the magnitude of this realization struck me. After six hours straight of monotonously moving plastic from the conveyor belt, to different bins, in a trance-like state, I experienced what some might call a reverse spiritual experience. Just as some people experience oneness with creation meditating in a forest, I could suddenly sense the vast gray web of industry connected to the polysterene yogurt container that I had grabbed. I could feel my connection to the factory workers in the smelting plant, the clerks in the super store that had sold it, the seamen in the giant container ship, the scavengers in the dump site and more. I could feel the dark gray web that was steadily ensnaring more and more of us in its de-humanizing demands. I could imagine its slimy and poisonous destiny in a pond, or river, or a field– somewhere– leaching, choking, contaminating.