Recycling: The Evil Illusion

in environment •  last year

Over the last five years, I’ve been working on the front lines of the struggle with plastic. I’ve been visiting dump sites and recycling centers around the world to discover for myself what really happens to plastic. In 2015, I took a job at a recycling facility in Canada, to find out what happens in my own country. I’ve never looked at recycling the same way again.

Yes, ‘Evil’ is a strong word– especially for an activity that most of the world thinks of as ‘Good’. However, after all that I have observed, I have come to have deep doubts about Recycling’s benevolence. There is an ominous reality lurking behind it that we ignore at the peril of people and planet. Perhaps you already have your suspicions– after seeing a beach strewn with plastic, glimpsing a smouldering ‘landfill’, or hearing about a great patch of plastic in the ocean.

For those of you who have read or seen the Lord of the Rings, you will remember Sauroman, the ‘White Wizard’. Everyone thought he was a good guy. Just like the characters in the story, as a kid reading the book, I was fooled too. After all, he wore a white robe, lived in a grove of oaks, and seemed concerned about the world.

But not all is as it seems.

[sauromanSauroman surveys his army of orks and goblins as he prepares to lay waste to Middle Earth. – Screenshot from The Return of the King.

In the novel, the heroes fall for Sauroman’s façade of goodness to their peril: While they are distracted, Sauroman, in secret service of the Dark Lord of Mordor, moves to ensnare Middle Earth in a kingdom of darkness. Recycling, adorned in its green robe, is a lot like Sauroman. Casting mit’s own evil illusion, it is slow and steady perpetuating a similar web of darkness on our Earth.

So, what is really going on?

First, let’s get semantic– the illusion begins with a misuse of the word recycle. To be clear, there’s natural recycling, and then there’s Industrial ‘recycling’. Recycling, in the true sense of the word, occurs in the ecologies around us. When a leaf falls from a tree, it becomes food for a host of microorganisms and insects, which then benefit others. The leaf is broken down into the very building blocks that another tree will use to grow again and sprout new leafs. In other words, 100% of its nutrients are being sublimely cycled into the infinite circles of life. This all happens with seamless efficiently, within a few meters of the tree.

When a plastic bottle is tossed into a ‘recycling’ bin, it begins a process of a fundamentally different sort. First, there is nothing local or sublime about industrial recycling. While in the system, the bottle is swept along a noisy, energy-intense journey around the planet. Much of North America’s plastic ends up being shipped to Asia for processing. Much Asian plastic gets sent to the rest of the world for consumption. The journey of a humble bottle spins a web around the planet involving countless miles of transportation; endless cargo trains, collosal container ships, and fleets trucks hurtling down our highways. The plastic streams from one node in the gray network to another– from a raucous recycling center, to a refinery, to a fuming factory, to a massive mall– then back again. Very much unlike the subtle local cycles in a forest, an immense amount of energy is expended.

Also very much unlike ecological cycles, the journey of a piece of plastic is not infinite. The fact is there is nothing circular about industrial recycling.

Piles of compressed plastic to be recycled, beside a pile of plastic set to be sent to the landfill.

In the job that I took at the state-of-the-art recycling plant in my city, an endless river of consumed plastic passed me by. The goal of the factory was to separate all the valuable plastic into the right piles, and let the plastics without value through. The value-less plastic went through to the land-fill pile. My job was often to sweep up the loose plastics on the factory floor into this big trash pile.

Perusing the heap, I was stunned.

First, at the size of the pile. There was so much plastic that just wasn’t valuable enough to warrant the energy to be recycled! Poly-bags, phone cases, straws, coffee cups, and even surf shorts. Second, I was shocked by at all the perfectly recyclable bottles, cans, and more that had bounced out of the complex apparatus around me and made it into the trash pile.

For me this was a jolting awakening.

Even if a piece of plastic is recyclable, even if it can technically be recycled forever, due to the fundamental inefficiencies in the system, inevitably, be it after a year or a century, it will end up in the land-fill pile. In other words, even if the system is 70% efficient (most estimates are way lower) our plastic bottle has a 3 in 10 chance of being lost from the system each time around. It’s just a matter of time until it’s industrial luck runs out and it ends up in the biosphere.

But the problem with the system isn’t just about inefficiency, its also about not being a circular. In my research around the world, I have observed that when plastic is ‘recycled’ and is turned into something else, its rarely into what it was first. A plastic PET bottle isn’t recycled into another PET bottle, but into a lower form of plastic.

Take for example, the pair of eco-surf-board shorts that I found in the pile. The label said that they are “made from 100% recycled PET bottles”. Wow. Cool. However, there’s no mechanism in place that enables these to be recycled again! This same downward “Recycling” occurs with countless other types of plastic. Worn, dirty, the plastic can only be down-cycled into a form of plastic with less value. The likelihood of this plastic then being recycled is less with each cycle “Recycling”. I had no choice but to sweep the shorts into the pile destined for the “land-fill” (60 years ago this place was a beautiful forest on the outskirts of the city).

It became clear to me that recycling isn’t a circle, it is at best a leaking downward spiral into the biosphere. Inexorably, despite all the equipment, all the energy, and all our best intentions, every molecule of plastic that we consume is ending up in the ecologies around us.

But it isn’t just the planet suffering from the industrial recycling system. There are the countless people swept into the gray web, into maintaining the nodes that perpetuate the industry.

Working the line was for me a fascinating first hand experience in recycling, but, it wasn’t pleasant. In fact, it was one of the least pleasant jobs in the entire city. Only folks who couldn’t find other jobs took this one– my colleagues were often socially challenged or newly arrived immigrants who couldn’t yet speak English.

A recycled tightens down his load. Photo by Alexander Sattler during our visit to Suwung Dumpsite, Bali Indonesia, 2016

Around the world, the phenomenon is the same: jobs that have to do with recycling are consistently the very worst in the society. My job in Canada was a walk in the park compared to recyclers in South America picking through smoldering, fly infested dump-sites under the hot sun. In Asia, folks are pressed into relentless hours on manufacturing lines, smelting plants, and ships that turn that plastic into something else. Only a very few at the top of the chains benefit from this apparatus.

Just as the White Wizard at the top of his tower was able to distract the heroes of the Lord of the Rings with his apparent benevolence, the Illusion of Recycling works the same. Lulled into the belief that each piece of plastic can be neatly recycled, we continue buying and consuming plastic without a second thought. Yet, when we understand the fundamental flaws in the system and see it on a global scale, it is no wonder that despite all the energy and effort put into at recycling, dumps are overflowing, rivers are clogged and giant patches of plastic are amassing in the oceans– while only those at the top of the tower prosper.

Recycling doesn’t reduce the flow of plastic into the biosphere. It increases it. Precisely because there is the illusion of a solution, plastic consumption remains unabated and more factories, more refineries and more container ships encircle the globe with ever more of our people manning their desolation, and ever fewer prospering. Meanwhile, the plastic steadily leaks out, turning forests, fields and oceans into garbage patches. A great gray web of darkness is enabled to spread its tendrils around the planet. If this isn’t an evil illusion, I don’t know what is.

One of a series of photos taken surreptitiously during my work at the recycling facility in Canada. See the full photoset and blog

One night on the late shift, working the conveyor belt separating plastics, I was lulled into a trance. After six monotonous hours immersed in the endless river of consumption, I hada vision. I was struck by the simple yet profound realization: We can do way better than this!

Recycling is a servant of the capital industrial complex. It is our unconscious creation, that our unconscious participation furthers. Just imagine if we put our conscious imagination and energy to work together on the same scale. Indeed it is already happening– the co-creation of the beautiful world we all know is possible. People powered movements that make plastic precious are spreading virally, shifting us sure and steady to a world where we integrate with nature’s true recycling. A new age is emerging where our lives are back in harmony with the ecological cycles around us and we are mindful of every aspect of our participation.

Recycling facility in Canada.

In the Lord of the Rings, Sauroman wasn’t the real evil; he was a but a servant of a much older dark force. In the same way, recycling itself is not our foe. Nor is plastic! The quest of the heroes took them further than Sauroman’s tower into the realm of the Dark Lord of Mordor. Beyond the piles of plastic, behind the cogs of industry and capital, lie the archaic paradigms that make our Mordor. Only once the heroes make it to the very heart of Mordor and can put the darkness into the light, is the evil vanquished once and for all.

We live in an age that calls us to be heroes. Where does your plastic come from? Where does it go when you are done? Who’s purpose does it serve? How can we do better? I urge you to find and follow the true destination and purpose of the plastic you use everyday.

The heroes of the Lord of the Rings were compelled to journey into the darkness in order to step out of Sauroman’s illusion. It was the only way to move forward into the awaiting Age of Light.

Now its our turn.

Russell Maier is a regenerative designer and one of the leaders in the global ecobrick movement. He is a principal in Global Ecobrick Alliance. Russell is proudly 100% zero waste– he makes ecobricks with his plastic, composts his biodegradeables, burns his paper, and builds his home and garden with his bottles and ecobricks.

Dumpsite photos by Alexandre Sattler Recycling center photos by Russell

This essay was originally written in January 2015. I have been reworked and republished it a couple times since, as I try to capture my evolving insights into the dark world of waste.

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Extremely well written post. I agree wholeheartedly with your findings. Plastic has actually not been around for that long, especially in the ordinary household. As a child growing up in the 60's, my parents were married after WW2 and as children themselves, had gone through the great depression. The thing is, we didn't have plastic, I think the only plastic in the house was the Bakelite light switches. We packed our groceries into paper bags, our lunches were wrapped in paper, our milk was in glass bottles as were a myriad of other food stuffs. We simply didn't have plastic. In fact I remember when we DID get it, mum and dad bought a small chest freezer, and I clearly remember seeing a plastic bag for the first time as they packed meat into it and sucked out the air. Next was milk tokens, before that we would wrap money in paper and leave in the milk bottle to be collected. So this monumental tidal wave of plastic consumerism and waste is not centuries old and already we are at critical levels of overload. Scary.


Thank you.

Great article, I've often thought that what you discovered was the truth (I'm an environmental scientist) and I have had the idea to research how recycling really works in Australia for some time now.

I suspect that the issue you have described here is exactly the same in Australia and you've motivated me to go out and take a look. This problem needs to be dealt with urgently. We really don't have time to ignore what is really going on.


Thank you Mazzle. Alas I suspect it a dynamic common all around the world. I heared about a big recycling scandal recently in your country recently when it was discovered that vast amounts of glass bottles that are perfectly recyclable were ending up in the landfill. I heartedly encourage you to research the recycling industry in your country. Take a job in one of the facilities and ask lots of questions! I managed to persuade my foreman to shift me to all the stations in the factory so I could better understand the systems for each material. Its hard work, but fascinating.


Yep, that article is actually the one that gave me the idea to start digging in the first place actually. I'll be sure to look further.

What an eye-opening post, @russmaier! I've been questioning the point of waste sorting in Bulgaria, as I have seen several times how binmen empty all bins into the same lorry...

Resteemed so that it can reach more people.


Thank you. I feel the more people who can see past the illusion the faster and smoother the shift.

Great article!!

I work in the recycling business too. I deal with electronic waste, but plastic has been a negative part of my industry as well.

Fortunately I have been working with a company that is affiliated with the University of Saskatchewan. They have found a way to turn any plastic into a Biofuel using a type of bacteria that eats plastic and generates natural gas as a byproduct.

There are other things we are working on that will increase precious metal recovery from e-waste and mining but reduce the harm to the environment to near zero.

No more burning circuit boards....
No more acids or poisons to extract the metals....(like mercury, cyanide or hydrochloric acid)
No more re-refining for purity.... 1 step process, it targets the precious metal that you choose....
99.999 purity of the precious metal targeted...
Reusable and so environmentally friendly, you could drink the solution (it would taste like shit and not recommended, but you would be fine if you did.)
Faster than the old method by far....
99.5% recovery rate compared to 70% from the old method...
The waste solution creates hydrogen gas when combined with a simple common element, which is captured and used to power the whole process and our entire facility....

Look for this process coming soon. Development is finished and we are scaling the process to industrial market now and marketing it to every country in the world as we speak....and their response is overwhelmingly positive.

I know it's far too late but there are some solutions that are in the works that will really start turning things around....we just need to reduce as much as we can and keep thinking of the solutions that will put a dent in this nightmare. (example plant cellulose plastics that completely biodegrade.)

We just need to get our Beeker on

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Resteemed and upvoted.

I always felt that somewhere, somehow, there is a scam in this recycling fantasy. I think the biggest reason for my suspicion was the fact that it is so prominently promoted. Recycle this, recycle that, do your part...bla blaa blaa! A revealing article.

Very interesting link there to Lord of the rings. The connotations in the book relate to so many aspects of human nature and life. Recycling is a gimmick in a lot of ways I don't trust our local recycling actually do as they say. If they did then packaging would all be recycled by now or even biodegradable or non existent as we would recycle our own containers. Best way it to reuse what you can yourself as these in charge will not change. I have written many letters to MP's about packaging and recycling and honestly they don't give a toss!

Awesome post about our recycling systems @russmaier loved the LOTR analogy my favourite films.

Thanks a lot for your article. The best "recycling" is to refuse plastic altogether.

Great, generally overlooked observations. Well presented with excellent literary analogies. Thank you. Re-Steemed.




Thank you.

Thank you for sharing this valuable insight,and helping to raise awareness!!!
This has always stuck with me.


We have been following such infos/discussions for some years now but we still buy water in plastic bottles although we know it's unhealthy simply because buying water in glas bottles would multiply our expenses and we simply can't afford it - this is in Germany btw.

Fabulous article. You certainly must be a professional writer. This is magazine/newspaper quality.

Thank you for the insight. As an engineer I've often wondered how the work could possibly absorb all the plastic that is being recycled and for what purpose it could eventually be used for. Now I know more about what is actually happening and that eventually it will end in the low value pile and in a landfill.

Great article. I had typed a very long winded reply but thought it best to spare you. What it comes down to is laziness and greed. Those are the main reasons we are in this mess. I could write a book on that but like i said...I will spare you :) Reduce, reuse period.