Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Recycling is all about being taken for a ride

Another day, another crisis. The crisis in kerbside recycling has been building since China effectively refused to take any more of our rubbish about 18 months ago. Then we sent it to other Asian countries, but now they’re jacking up, too.

The disruption to the local recycling industry has caused one company that accepted recycled material from local councils in Victoria and South Australia to collapse, leaving five big warehouses stuffed with baled paper and plastic that no one wants.

But then Scott Morrison took charge. At a meeting with the premiers, they agreed to establish a timetable to ban the export of waste plastic, paper, glass and tyres. In the meantime, he committed $20 million for “innovative projects to grow our domestic recycling industry”.

Morrison said Australia needed to take responsibility for its own waste, but this moral act should be seen as a money-making opportunity rather than a new economic burden. The changes should “not have to cost us more – in fact, hopefully, it’ll cost us less”.

Minister for Industry Karen Andrews said: “Boosting our onshore recycling industry has the potential to create over three times as many jobs as exporting our plastic waste, ensuring a more sustainable and prosperous future.”

Really? Sounds delusional to me. The truth is that most of what we put out each week is of little value to business – especially after you’ve had to move it, sort it, move it again, clean it up, melt it down or whatever.

It’s not clear that the cost of making our waste attractive to local businesses would be less than they were prepared to pay for it. If not, we’d pay through higher taxes. Of course, governments could compel businesses to use recycled materials, but if this increased their costs we’d pay through higher prices.

This is why, until now, so much of our waste – and that of the Americans, Japanese and Europeans – has been shipped around the world to Asian countries. That’s where wages are low enough to make feasible all the work involved in recovering waste materials.

But even they are now deciding it’s not worth all the air pollution, chemical emissions, discharge of untreated water and damage to workers’ health involved. A fair bit of the plastic can’t be recycled and gets burnt.

So we could spend a lot more than we do at present ensuring that we recycle a high proportion of our own household waste, but before we do we ought to ask ourselves how we’ve come to believe that recycling most of the stuff we discard is absolutely central to our efforts to reduce the damage we’re doing to the natural environment.

Why are we putting recycling on a higher pedestal than reducing carbon emissions? Because it’s easier? We’re learning it’s not as easy as it seems.

If the amount of household waste is such a problem, why are we emphasising recycling rather than reduced packaging? Because governments don’t like telling big business what it can and can’t do?

It amazes me that we’ve put recycling up there with motherhood and never stop to question whether it’s the best use of our time and money in the “environmental space”.

I think recycling involves a high degree of self-delusion (and don’t worry, I’ve been known to completely repack our bin so as to fit more in). It’s more about feeling good than doing good.

We’ve taken to recycling because, with just a small effort on our part, we’re able to convince ourselves we’re doing our bit to save the planet. (I remember shopping at a supermarket in California, with all its indulgences and absurd degree of choice. At the checkout, you were asked whether you wanted your stuff packed in “paper or plastic”. All you had to do was say “paper” and you emerged with a clear conscience.)

With kerbside recycling, it’s out of sight, out of mind. I played my part, what happens after that is up to the government. Turns out, we’ve been sweeping our dust under the carpet and only now are noticing the bulge.

Governments have found it easier to play along with our delusions – see above – than tell us the disillusioning truth. Green groups and ecologists also play along because they think it gives us something to do and keeps us engaged with their issue.

Nobody actually wants the stuff, so the authorities have been shipping it off to Asia on the q.t. Much of the stuff that doesn’t get shipped away ends up in landfill anyway.

What do we imagine recycling achieves? How much further use of fossil fuel, water, chemicals and other damage to the environment is justified to ensure the last bit of paper or bottle cap is recycled?

Recycling’s total effect on the environment is a far more complicated sum than it suits governments and experts to tell us.

For instance, we know how bad single-use plastic bags are. What we’re not told is that, according to a British government study, you have to use a paper bag three times – or a cotton bag 131 times – to be sure that, once the effect of producing the bag is taken into account, you’ve contributed to fewer carbon emissions.

We need to be sure we’re directing our effort and expense towards the most environmentally beneficial ends.