The politics of recycling vs reusing

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

The politics of recycling vs reusing and the deliberate confusing of the two


On the left of the picture you see what recycling of glass looks like. It gets crushed and then used not to make new bottles but inferior products, often road aggregate. On the right, now that is reuse.

Time and again we see reuse being called recycling and while it seems a common and seemingly simple mistake there are 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. It still has an impact by way of energy use, from collecting and transporting the recyclables, over breaking them down to re-manufacturing products from them.

First of all, recycling more or less 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. Recycling is a form of disposal, make no mistake there, and as an industrial process, recycling still means expenditures of energy and virgin materials, and produces pollutants, greenhouse gases and waste.

The recycling paper, for instance, involves using water and electricity to separate paper fibers which must then be de-inked; a process that results in toxic sludge.

Furthermore, recycling is not a closed-loop system, even if it is being sold too us as such. And, whenever the market price for recyclables falls the majority of the stuff is then simply landfilled. In addition to that a great majority of recycling results in downcycling, which is to say the creation of inferior products with PU plastics often being turned into asphalt and other end-of-the-line products. This is, unfortunately, also true with regards to glass to a great extent which, instead of being remade into glass products, is crushed and used as a road building aggregate. The chances for a recyclable object to be recycled twice in its life is less than one percent.

Reuse, on the other hand, is an act that challenges the institutionalization of easy disposal and the politics of industry-supported “environmentalism” and that of consumption, of buying more and more and disposing of the “old” with an almost happy heart as, we are told, all the components are recyclable and will be recycled. While the components of the products may be recyclable they are not always recycled and it should also not be necessary. Products should be, once again, repairable also so that, aside from a reuse culture we have a repair culture again as well.

Reuse 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. Nowadays reuse is often made out to be something that we seem to have – more or less – just invented but our grandparents and the generations before them all reused and repurposed things all the time, from glass jars to many other things.

Upcycling, though this term being a rather new one, is also almost as old as the hills, much like reuse, and was practiced by our grandparents and their parents before them. Some of us may be lucky enough to even have had parents who did it, as is the case with yours truly.

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.

However, reuse and repurposing has to start and should start with us as individuals and households, and we should reuse and repurpose and upcycle as much of what is still today considered waste into things for our use and even beyond that. At least until such a time that large-scale reuse and repurposing takes over and even then we should continue.

It is not difficult, as some countries show, and that often not even intentionally with regards to reuse as opposed to throw-away but simply because it has always been done so – Japan is an example here with some of they way they package things, for instance, whether in beautiful boxes, or whatever, which automatically have a reuse – and packaging, for instance, can be designed in such a way that a reuse is immediately obvious. German mustard manufacturers, for instance, quite frequently, put their products in glasses that are designed and intended, in the end, to be used for drinking glasses.

When we call reuse or repurposing “recycling,” everything is seen as “recycling” and thus “recycling” is seen as the thing to do with the waste that we generate without, for many, thinking about the alternatives, such as reuse, repurposing, upcyling and such. But then again that is exactly the way it is being designed to not change the status quo as to the way products, and especially also packaging, are produced and used. In addition to that there is money in recycling, as long as the price for recyclables is a decent one, for otherwise the stuff just ends up in landfills, and thus local authorities (governments) and central government, as well, obviously, like promote so-called recycling above all other measures.

© 2016