The Politics of Recycling vs. Reusing

This is Shanghai Airport’s* simple yet effective way to deal with lighters confiscated at security:

From Good Magazine’s article, “Shanghai Airport’s Brilliantly Simple Lighter Recycling System.”

It is simple reuse via redistribution. Yet in a short article publicizing the initiative, the environmentally-savvy Good Magazine called this “recycling.” It’s a common and seemingly simple mistake, and is just one of a myriad of daily examples where reuse is called recycling. Yet it is extremely important to differentiate between the two for political and environmental reasons.

Recycling is an industrial process that collects used or abandoned materials, and smashes, melts, shreds or otherwise transforms them into their constituent raw materials. Recycling can reduce waste, the need for virgin materials, energy consumption, air pollution, and landfill leachates, though this occurs in varying degrees for different processes. But recycling is not environmentally benign. First, recycling institutionalizes disposables and single-use items by treating them after they have been created, meaning more single-use and disposable items are guaranteed to be made and tossed in the future. Make no mistake: recycling is a form of disposal. Secondly, as an industrial process, it necessitates expenditures of energy and virgin materials, and produces pollutants, greenhouse gases and waste. For example, recycling paper involves using water and electricity to separate paper fibers which must then be de-inked, a process that results in toxic sludge. Thirdly, recycling is not a closed-loop system. Even if we concentrate on the 6-30% of recyclables in the US that are actually captured in the recycling stream, and ignore the two-thirds of captured recyclables that are dumped in landfills when market prices for recyclables plummet or bails are contaminated, recycling often creates products that are “down-cycled.” Down-cycled products are not as robust as their predecessors, nor are such products usually recyclable themselves (polyurethane plastics, for example, are often turned into asphalt or other end-of-the-line objects). The chances for a recyclable object to be recycled twice in its life is less than 1%.

Reuse, on the other hand, is an act that challenges the institutionalization of easy disposal and the politics of industry-supported “environmentalism” and consumption. It does not require new materials. It reduces waste instead of merely diverting it. It offers an opportunity for creativity as materials are repurposed. Currently, many acts of reuse, especially of things usually considered waste, involve individuals choosing to repurpose objects. Becoming a reuse culture– the large-scale institutionalization and normalizing of reuse– instead of a throw-away culture perpetuated by guilt-free recycling would include changing the practices of production and consumption. There would be no more single-use items. It would  encourage the stewardship and care of objects. Objects would be redesigned to be durable, repairable, and safe.  This possibility is why reuse is a potentially political act, while recycling maintains the status quo.

When we call reuse or repurposing “recycling,” “recycling” comes to denote its competitors in solid waste management. The narrowing of descriptive language for different types of environmental participation and practices narrows concepts of waste alternatives by positing recycling as other alternatives, even when there is a hierarchy of environmental effectiveness and politics between regulation, reduction, redesign, reuse, and recycling. This signals a political failure to differentiate between ideologically diverse environmental actions, not a mere slip in vocabulary.

Further reading:
Max Liboiron, “Recycling as a Crisis of Meaning,” eTopia: Canadian Journal of Cultural Studies, (4) Spring 2009.

MacBride, S. (2011). Recycling reconsidered: the present failure and future promise of environmental action in the United States. MIT Press.

McDonough, W. and M. Braungart (2002). Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way we Make Things. New York, North Point Press.

Tom Mochal, “The Reuse Environment is More About Culture Than Technology,” TechRepublic, January 23, 2002.

* Thank you to reader Lynna Yee for the correction. 3/15/16

9 thoughts on “The Politics of Recycling vs. Reusing

  1. Thanks for the post – it’s certainly a rich topic. One detail – the first line says Tokyo Airport, but the photo says Shanghai Airport.

    Interesting to start off with reuse of cigarette lighters, since smoking is so harmful at multiple scales to both health and the environment. Nothing that is required for smoking is recycled – paper and tobacco are turned into air pollution, toxic cigarette butts pollute soil or waterways, litter sidewalks, or – in a best case scenario – end up in the landfill and add to leachate. Lighters and matches almost always end up in the trash – as these lighters eventually will, even if they are reused first! Still, better for the gas in these lighters to be burned to light cigarettes than sent to the landfill.

    • Thanks for your insights, Randall. You’re right, cigarette lighters aren’t ideal objects for a reuse campaign — but the attitude that inspires such a gesture is worth remembering, even imitating. (And think of all those airline passengers who won’t be able to light up immediately upon arrival. In some small way the confiscated lighters represent a small help for their health!)

  2. Well, we totally agree about the hierarchy of reduce, reuse, recycle… recycling comes in third. But I disagree that “recycling is definitely a form of disposal”. Recycling is a form of mining. What pays for recycling is the energy saved. It just takes way more oil to cut down trees and haul them down the mountain and pulp them into paper, and the costs of extracting metals is even more enormous. That’s why recycling is not more common in richer places… quite the opposite, the highest rates are in places like Zabaleen society in Cairo, Dhurvai in India, etc. No one pays anyone to recycle at all until the society becomes so wealthy that you have to pay people to do it.

    • You’re right — recycling can save energy. But it doesn’t always. There are plenty of examples of recycling using more energy than would be expended to make the same resource from scratch. Glass is one example. Samantha MacBride discusses some of the economics of glass recycling in her new book, Recycling Reconsidered: The Present Failure and Future Promise of Environmental Action in the United States (MIT Press).

      • Yes, I know Samantha. The glass does save energy if it is really recycled (vs. what really happens in most curbside programs). If you actually compare making a glass bottle from virgin mined silica vs. the same bottle from recycled glass, there is really no question that you save at least 50% of the energy by recycling. The problem is that the labor rates to separate glass by color is usually “saved” in the west by crushing all the glass together to make aggregate (road bed, pipe cover, etc.) In low wage countries, they will always reuse the bottles first, then sort the glass by color and recycle it. And they don’t do it for charity.

      • Yes, I know Samantha. Her point is valid, but you’ve mistated the problem. Curbside collection as a system leads the glass to be unrecyclable, and the cullet is then “downcycled” (gravel use) rather than used to replace virgin cullet. But Samantha notes that true recycling of glass does save energy (e.g. when it is collected through deposit container systems). If you actually compare making a glass bottle from virgin mined silica vs. the same bottle from recycled glass, there is really no question that you save at least 50% of the energy by recycling. The problem is that the labor rates to separate glass by color. In low wage countries, they will always reuse the bottles first, then sort the glass by color and recycle it. And they don’t do it for charity.

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