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The Real Story of Recycling

You drink a Coca-Cola, throw the can in the recycling bin and forget about it. And rightly so. Because, logically speaking, everything in the recycling bin will get recycled, right?

Wrong. If one looks at plastics alone, less than 10% of it is actually recycled. And even that does not merely disappear but enters the vast world of the waste industry. Here’s the story –

Waste first gets sorted in sorting plants or Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) both manually and with the help of advanced machines. A lot of materials that cannot be recycled or are too expensive to recycle are also separated here.

Some items that cannot be recycled –

– items that are too small – straws, ear buds, ketch-up or shampoo sachets are some examples
– items that are made of mixed materials – all paper cups including conventional cups are lined with a thin layer of plastic and most aluminium foils are bonded with polyethylene
– items that are dirty and deemed cumbersome to wash, that is, items that have food and oil stains

After the sorting, it goes for recycling. Most developed countries, however, produce more waste than what they can recycle at home. More than half of it is loaded on to container ships and sent to Asia or Europe, China being the world’s largest market.

In 2016, a documentary, Plastic China went viral on the internet before it was removed by censors. This documentary was an eye-opener – it shed light on the unhygienic working conditions and low pay of workers. And how plastic waste is further segregated, shred and melted into pellets by the workers while the rest is burned in open air, releasing toxic fumes.

Partly because of the pressure created by the documentary, in early 2018 China shut its doors, arguing that what was coming in was too contaminated. Very soon the market began flooding any other country that would accept the waste – Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, countries with some of the highest rates of waste mismanagement – trash left or burned in open and illegal landfills or facilities with inadequate reporting, making the final fate of the waste untraceable. At present, several other countries like Malaysia and India are also posing bans on the waste that enters. But the rubbish still flows in. Illegally.

So to put it briefly, in reality it is most likely a myth if you are told that your waste is getting recycled. It actually enters the illegal waste trade where most of it is dumped in illegal landfills or is burned in open fires. Also, this wasteful and harmful process consumes a lot of energy (including transport) and is simply not worth it.

So what are our options?

> Closed-loop Recycling

The definition of recycling is ‘to treat or process (used or waste materials) so as to make suitable for reuse’.

Lucy Seigle in her book, Turning the Tide on Plastic says, “The process of altering the molecules in waste materials so that they can become something else seems magical to me. Energy is transferred from one matter to another in a continuous loop, and is therefore harnessed. That means that precious resources and the environment are conserved. When recycling works, it really works. Recycling plastic, for example, minimizes energy and resource use by avoiding the extraction and processing of virgin oil (required to produce new plastic), and it also reduces CO2, particulate matter and other harmful gas emissions, compared to other methods of disposal or recovery. It also diverts our rubbish from landfill, and this is really important.”

What Lucy is talking about is called ‘closed-loop recycling’ in which an old material is processed and returned to its same ‘new’ state and is made into a product of the same original material, similar to the definition of Essentially this means that an old plastic water bottle can be recycled into a new plastic water bottle because its quality is the same. Unlike in other forms of recycling (or ‘downcycling’) there is no degradation and hence there is no limit to the number of times the bottle can be recycled. This high-standard recycling, in reality does not happen enough and instead, PET bottles are recycled into fibre for clothing, for example.

One example of closed-loop recycling is a discovery made only about a week ago by a group of scientists at Carbios. They discovered a mutant enzyme, accidentally found in a pile of compost that can recycle plastic bottles in hours. This is the first time it can be done at such a fast speed, at an industrial scale and retain the value of the original plastic. This will hopefully discourage and eventually reduce the manufacturing of new plastic.

> Moving from Disposable to Reusable

‘Reduce, reuse, recycle’ is not just a catchy phrase, it is listed in order of preference.

Burka, the first zero-waste shop in Latvia

Reusing was actually practiced a lot more until the 70s and 80s when consumerism brought us ‘convenient’, disposable household products and packaged food items. Increased awareness is now bringing this culture back and it has become quite trendy to carry your own water bottle or coffee cup. Several initiatives have sprouted worldwide including zero-waste shops that require you to bring your own containers.

I recently heard of a US based delivery service called Loop that has tied up with large consumer brands. Started by a waste management company called Terracycle, they follow the typical model of the milkman, where not only milk but all of your household goods are picked up, cleaned and refilled! This also encourages the packaging designers of these large brands to think more about durability instead of disposability.

So yes, with new ideas, consumer awareness and technology, there is hope. In the meantime, let us do what we can – carry your own instead of choosing disposable and support zero-waste ventures.

If you have some comments or suggestions on recycling and its alternatives, please do post them in the comments below.

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