Recycling is not a new idea

by Michael Smith (Veshengro)

recycling containers are not newWe are often lead to believe that recycling has only been invented rather recently and especially as to the separation of recyclables. This, however, is definitely not the case, on both counts, as we can see from the photo from around the 1940s.

In fact the collection of recyclables and the separation of them – often by the collector rather than the consumer – goes back a long way already. It was the “rag and bone man2 who used to do this well before the state ever intervened in those affairs.

During World War Two in Britain, whence the photo comes, recycling was a serious need as the blockade by German U-Boats made it difficult for raw materials to reach the shores of these isles.

The German Democratic Republic referred to recyclables of all kinds by the name of secondary raw materials (Sekundärrohstoffe) and as the country was very short of resources the use of those was vital.

The lack of resources also was the reason that products in the GDR (East Germany) were made to last and to be repairable. Thus many GDR products made 30 or 40 years ago still work very well on a daily basis where “modern” counterparts have had to be replaced several times over.

In the capitalist world no one thought, and still few think, about conserving resources and in the name of profit products are now made in such a way that they break – irreparably – after a year or maybe a little longer and this is called progress, apparently.

Nowadays things have gone even so far that we are throwing – so it would appear – the very notion of repairability and making products that will last for decades out with the total recyclability of products and their components.

And, while that is very good in principle (the recyclability that is) it still means that products are made with an obsolescence built-in of but a year or so, maybe three. People also don't worry about it then – so it is hoped by those who have come up with this – as the “old” products can be broken up for recycling. Repairability and longevity of products, combined with recyclability when they really can no longer be kept alive, is what is needed.

We must get away from the notion that recyclability and recycling is the answer. It is not! The answer is goods that are made to last and that can be easily – and that is the operative word – repaired and their lifespan extended as and when they do develop a fault. But capitalism today will never allow this to happen (again). Profits are no longer based on new, innovative, products but simply on the need for people to buy the same, or similar, product again after a year or so because the “old” one is broken (or has become obsolete) – according to design – and cannot be repaired. This is all engineered in.

While recycling and the ability to have all products designed in such a way that they can be stripped down and the components be reused is a good idea, in principle, it must go hand in hand with repairability and longevity of products manufactured. Recycling alone is a bad idea and while it may be good for the economy it is not good at all for the Planet or our wallets.

As consumers we have the ability to vote with our wallets and demand better products in line with being repairable and long living and, at the end of their lives, when they really cannot be fixed anymore, recyclable. In addition to that we can also, through choice of purchases, make companies change their mode of production and where goods are manufactured. You want “Made in Britain” or “Made in USA” or “Made in Germany” then refuse to buy products that are not made at home. Let's hit them where it hurts, by hitting their profits.

© 2014