Recycling the Lies

Arriving on the pristine shoreline of Gili Meno, one of three idyllic islands off the coast of Lombok, Indonesia, it was a pleasant surprise to find such a tourist hotspot still immaculately cared for. A far cry from the waste-filled, dead coral lined beaches that greet you in southern Thailand. Stepping from the small, single-engine boat, the white sand was the perfect foreground to the paradise surrounding. It only took one bike ride and 45 minutes later to find the other side of the island and the real Gili Meno.

Derelict holiday cabins and abandoned hotels provide a new backdrop, pristine white sand no longer the focus; plastic waste as far as you can see. Bottles lapping against the shoreline, packaging strewn across the beaches, plastic everywhere. Asking around and the problem is apparent; Indonesia has no recycling infrastructure, further investigation reveals not many countries actually do. Another eye-opening moment came when living in Auckland and having naturally sorted all recycling and waste into their own bins, I walk out to see the garbage truck guy just empty all containers into the same truck, turns out it all goes to the same place anyway.

Not many of us think much of tossing an item in the recycling, and if anything, we feel good knowing that this piece of discarded waste is going to continue its journey and reemerge as a beautiful fresh piece of packaging, and will continue to do so until the end of time. Recycling is as much in the conscious of most of our everyday life, we don't even think about it. Separating our trash is as second nature as not discarding an empty can into a bush, but instead waiting for a bin.

So why is recycling so misleading and why is nobody doing anything about it? Decades of the highly effective green marketing tool of recycling has absolved us as consumers of all blame and guilt of buying and using single-use items. Every single local council and region worldwide have their own recycling policies and ways of dealing with the growing amount of waste we throw away. There simply isn't the infrastructure to cope with and process the sheer amount of recyclable materials we produce. That is when governments sold recycling overseas to China, India and anyone else who want to take it on. Then in 2018, China closed its doors on accepting foreign waste due to an overwhelming amount coming in, they simply can't process that much. With the cost of plastic dropping so much, there just simply isn't a viable need to recycle anymore, so countries end up burning the lot, or just adding it to the already mounting landfill sites.

There was a convenient shift stemming from the issue of deforestation back in the 90s, the clearing of the Amazon was running rampant and the public conscious, with the help of the oil industry, switched to plastic as a means to protect the trees. The reason why recycling was so wide-spread back then was because the oil industry essentially paid for it to be. Changing the mindset of consumers to buy a certain product is the very foundation of all advertisement; recycling was just that. At its core, of course recycling is a great idea, and by no means was malice ever at the heart of its initial marketing push, our level of consumption is just not sustainable.

Less than 10% of all plastic ever produced has been recycled, the rest; burned or found its way to the ocean and rivers, and beaches. With the global pandemic increasing plastic production tenfold, the situation is only going to get worse, and by 2050, the global production of plastic will triple. The oil and gas industry is facing a future decline in the demand for oil, its only going to turn its attention to plastic manufacturing, and in doing so, the accompanying marketing for it.

Essentially, recycling should not be at the forefront of a sustainable mindset, in fact, it should be dead last. We should not be fooled by the green arrow logo in thinking that this product is going to be reused and feel better at not throwing things in the trash, because unfortunately, that trash is our backyard. Switching mindsets to more a sustainable living is needed, and with the rise of zero-waste stores and refilling stations, the need for single use plastic is no longer so high, and the more people realise the truth of recycling, the industry will have no choice but to change their ways.