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.
[Sauroman 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.
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.
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.
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.