Why We Will Never Recycle Our Way Out of This Problem

Sep 23, 2020

Why we will never recycle our way out of this problem.


Often when you have a discussion about circular economy, it is not long before the topic of recycling enters the conversation. This is great, but only if it is seen as part of a larger solution and not the absolute ambition. Recycling is great, if the industry/geography/market/policy/culture allows for the post-consumer capture and reintroduction of the material into the system. Also, it is worth pointing out here that just because something is recyclable, doesn’t actually mean it gets recycled.


It is also worth pointing out, that despite the “Recycling Symbol” having been around for circa 45years, we only capture 14% of the material we make globally each year. And of that 14%, only 2% is truly closed loop. Therefore we are NEVER going to recycle our way out of the problem. Not now, and unfortunately not ever.


So we need to always consider the bigger idea with circular economics, how do we keep the materials that already exist in our global economies in circulation. Before we get close to recycling we need to look at how we maintain, repair and prolong the life of products, how we reuse, again and again. How we can refurbish and remanufacture, and build growth in new and secondary markets, and eventually then consider recycle. But when we do take a lens that the material stays at its highest possible economic value. Whilst plastic bottles to asphalt to might seem like a good idea… its down cycling at best, and also what happen to that material at the end of its life. Normally nothing, so in which case its delayed linear economics at play.


Of course, we must never lose sight of the design component. If a product or material is not designed to be disassembled, or recycled easily, you are never going to find an easy [economic] solution. So next time someone talks to you about how their product is 100% recyclable. Ask more questions of them. Thanks. JG.

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