Recycling is just rubbish


The difference is the closed cycle of the human-chook food chain, compared to the linear process of “extract, consume and dispose” that characterises salmon farming.

Given that distinction, recycling sounds lovely. Instead of digging up new resources every time we want something, we simply extract it from our old rubbish. For example, it takes twenty times as much energy to manufacture a kilogram of aluminium from raw bauxite, as it does to convert used aluminium cans into shiny new ingots. Recycling an aluminium can, then, saves about 880kilojoules of energy compared to making a new one. Surely a resounding blow for sustainability?

But wait. There’s more.

Re-use is many times more efficient than recycling. Glass containers were traditionally used fifty times before being recycled. The 120 kilojoules required to recycle each aluminium can transport and wash a glass bottle many times over.

The real challenge is to use energy and resources only when they add real value. On average, every Australian disposes of more than 150 aluminium cans a year, consuming between 18 and 150Megajoules of energy in the process. 60Megajoules of energy feeds, clothes, houses and transports the average Indian for a day. Globally, your recycling is very expensive.

Waste is big business. Australians spend over $2billion each year on disposing of around 30 million tonnes of waste. Over 1700 companies operate in the waste disposal sector employing about 10,000 people. The waste management industry is bigger than sugar or cotton and only marginally smaller than Australia’s annual export of grapes.

Big business it may be, but that two billion dollars produces nothing and, while it adds to the published GDP, adds no value to the economy. The cost of processing each tonne of waste is rising at the same time as the amount of waste is increasing. In an attempt to reduce the rising costs of landfill governments actively promote recycling.

Despite widespread cynicism about whether waste companies actually do recycle the goods they pick up, the amont of recycled material is growing steadily. Most construction steel and concrete is already recycled and about 27 per cent of all glass is recycled, despite the fact that it is made from a readily available raw material, sand.

The problem is that all of this recycling barely impacts on our overall consumption of raw materials or the energy used to convert them into goods. Recycling is the answer to the wrong question. The question is not, ‘How can we better manage our waste?’, but ‘How can we waste less?’

Fundamentally, the recycling bin is still a rubbish bin. It requires transportation and handling, the stuff in there has to be scrubbed and rendered back to its basic materials then reformed into a useful object. You should not be comparing recycling to extraction, you should be comparing it to re-use.

If you cannot re-use a container or packaging at least once, you should not purchase it.

Ideally, you should be able to re-use it many times before it requires replacing. Certainly bottles, baskets and sturdy bags fit this criteria and you will see many people in this shire out shopping with such containers at hand. They are not quaint, retro-shopping hippies, they are the vanguard of your sustainable future. Ask them where they got their gear and shop a while in their shoes. Future generations will thank you.

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