Crew Commentary

Recycling is a Sham

Bob Leonard - Climate Risk Manager


The things we are separating and putting into recycling bins are probably not being recycled. Recycling validates waste and it is a faux solution to the complex waste crisis we have designed ourselves into.


Systems Thinking recognizes that everything is interconnected. Solve a complex problem with a simple solution, and we inevitably cause other problems. There are no quick fixes to complex problems.



Recycling is one small part of the entire system of “stuff”. It starts with the extraction of raw materials from the earth and includes: design, supply chains, transportation of materials, manufacturing, sales, packaging, delivery, use and disposal. The system is the problem.


There has been an attempt to address the environmental issues associated with waste (or at least public awareness of them) with the quick fix of “recyclables” as a solution to disposability. It’s a validation of the production of single-use product streams. It has resulted in the myth of ‘good’ (paper) and ‘bad’ (plastic) materials, which is problematic because all materials have impacts. And it inhibits us from addressing the real issue.


National Sword


The current recycling crisis started in January 2018, when China announced that they would stop taking the world’s recycling and enacted their “National Sword” policy. After more than 25 years of accepting two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste, China suddenly banned the import of recyclable materials.


Since the new Chinese legislation came into effect, their plastic imports have dropped by 99%, forcing the bulk of the recyclables to be landfilled, incinerated, stockpiled on docks, cast out into the environment, or sent to other countries. Many of these other countries are following China’s lead and are also refusing foreign trash.


Sleight of Hand


Magicians use misdirection to lead their audience to see what they want them to see, and not to see what they don’t want them to see. This is the tactic used to get our society to a place where recycling represents true environmentalism.


The initial effort to normalize disposability happened in 1970, when the first Earth Day was celebrated in the US, with this famous Keep America Beautiful ad: it features an actor posing as a Native American who sheds a single tear as an oblivious passerby chucks a bag of trash out of his car window. Playing on people’s emotions, the ad then delivers the message that we have internalized: “People start pollution. People can stop it.” It shifts the blame and guilt for disposable items away from the producers and onto the consumers.


This ad and many others were funded by Keep America Beautiful, a front for a lobby group made up of representatives from the major beverage companies. Their strategic goal was to turn the attention away from the rising concern for the environment, as glass soda and milk bottles were swapped (due to the expense of collecting and washing them) to disposable alternatives. https://www.chicagotribune.com/opinion/commentary/ct-perspec-indian-crying-environment-ads-pollution-1123-20171113-story.html


This sleight of hand trick made it seem the problem was not a calculated shift to normalizing disposability, but the acts of individuals.


Why are people who purchase the stuff to blame? We seldom have any choice in the matter. We have created a disposable culture, and no amount of recycling will fix it. We need to remedy this at the root cause: producer-enforced disposability and a normalized throwaway culture.


Here’s an example of a recycling system that holds manufacturers accountable, rather than consumers. Germany has a system that, while far from perfect, is considered to be one of the best recycling systems in the world. Germany recycles nearly 70% of its waste. This can be traced back to a package ordinance that was passed in 1991, in which it “required manufacturers to take responsibility for the recycling of their product packaging after a consumer was finished using it. This included transportation packaging, secondary packaging (e.g. the box holding the plastic detergent bottles) and the primary packaging (the plastic detergent bottles).”


Systemic Design


Recycling is the symptom. The core underlying problem is the manufacture of products that are designed to be discarded.


In our economic system, natural capital is not taken into account, but there are real costs. There are costs to our environment in mining the materials, in manufacturing the product, in packaging and shipping the product; and then the cost of disposing of it. Manufacturers should be required to account for these costs to the environment. Why not design products to be used, reused, and then be recycled back into the production process? https://mcdonough.com/cradle-to-cradle/


(NOTE: this is not the textbook definition of systemic design, but one that I cobbled together to address this issue.) Systemic design integrates systems thinking, human-centered design and cradle to cradle design:


  1. It focuses on people and planet.
  2. It strives to solve the underlying problem, not the symptoms.
  3. It understands that the problem is interconnected into a system.
  4. It researches all of the interconnections with an eye toward unintended consequences.
  5. It replaces end of life (discard) with reinput into a new production process.
  6. It does away with planned obsolescence.
  7. It replaces quantity with quality.


If our products were manufactured using these systemic design principles, there would be virtually no waste. Recycled materials would be returned to where they were manufactured and fed back into the production system… reducing the need to extract more raw materials and solving our waste problem at the source.


Until this becomes a reality, keep recycling with the hope that some of your materials are actually recycled. Refuse single use plastics like straws and cutlery. Push for innovative delivery models that do not rely on single-use packaging. One example is Loop, a new service that CPG companies are using to test the viability of reusable packaging for products like detergent and deodorant. And advocate for more action from industry on the elimination of waste via systemic product design.