Ian Parsons spent twenty years working as a Ranger with the Forestry Commission, where he not only worked with birds of prey and dormice, but where he developed his passion for trees. Now a freelance writer, Ian runs his own specialist bird tour company leading tours to Extremadura. For more details see www.griffonholidays.com
This is Ian’s ninth Guest Blog here (see Bird of the Year, 3 January 2018; How red are Reds? 18 November 2017;, A Question of Importance, 13 January 2017; Disturbing Conservation, 13 December 2016; Tree Blindness, 15 September 2016; Seeing the Wood for the Trees, 9 March 2017, Love Vultures – Ban Diclofenac, 27 July 2017, Building for Wildlife, 29 August 2017).
Ian’s book, A Tree Miscellany, was reviewed here.
A Recycled Argument
The rather vague announcement by the government on ‘getting rid of needless plastic waste’ has led to me recalling a conversation I had over twenty years ago. I was at a course/symposium sort of thing on sustainability, I wasn’t meant to be there, but was a last minute substitution for another member of staff who couldn’t make it.
I didn’t want to be there, it was aimed at teachers and environmental educators and I was a muddy Ranger from the woods. This might have affected my attitude and might explain my cynicism to what was being discussed, but looking back, what I said seems strangely prophetic now.
A group conversation was going on about what the individuals were going to do to make what they did more sustainable. Absolutely everybody said they were going to introduce some form of recycling at their place of work, they were going to encourage children and colleagues to recycle their plastic bottles, their drink cans etc.
When it came to my turn, my jaded, less than positive attitude, caused quite a few disapproving looks. I said that they had got it all wrong (I have never been known for being subtle…), that they had mistaken recycling as being sustainable, when it was actually a symptom of being unsustainable. I told them that if they were being sustainable they wouldn’t need to recycle.
Now that was a very broad brush statement and I know it can be picked to pieces with ease, but the basic premise is, I believe, correct. To be sustainable they shouldn’t be encouraging children to recycle plastic bottles, they should be encouraging them not to use them in the first place. That would be far more sustainable.
Reduce, Reuse and Recycle were the three ‘R’s of sustainability, but somewhere along the line we seem to have forgotten the first one. Plastics are recycled as never before, but we haven’t reduced their use at all.
Fast forward twenty plus years and it is Christmas day, a relation is generously giving out presents, decoratively wrapped in shiny glittery wrapping paper, complete with stick on bows and ribbon. As I start to rip off these adornments to get at the present inside, I am scolded for being careless with the wrapping materials. “Don’t damage them,” I am told, “I keep them to reuse them, it’s called being Green!”
Now, for the sake of world peace I held my tongue (I was well aware of the loaded sharp elbow near my ribcage in case I didn’t!), but what I wanted to say was that if you were ‘Green’ you wouldn’t be using shiny glittery wrapping paper and plastic coated bows and ribbon in the first place. The thing is though we do, we think it is alright to do so, because we can put it in the recycling for the council to collect.
We have been conditioned to think recycle as opposed to thinking reduce.
A news story just after Christmas caught my eye, China had stopped taking plastics from other countries to be recycled and this was leading many councils in Britain to state that this was going to be problematical for them, as the majority of their plastic trade went to China. We were reassured though that the recycling industry were working to resolve the issue. Apart from the very obvious fact that transporting our plastic bottles half way across the world to be recycled can by no means be called sustainable, you will have noticed I italicised the words trade and industry. Since my comments twenty odd years ago, recycling has become a massive industry, trading in our unsustainability. The UK’s recycling industry is worth over 8 billion pounds, that’s a staggering amount and with such a large value comes a whole host of vested interests, when people can make large amounts of money out of doing something, they don’t like to stop doing it. Reducing the need to recycle, means reducing the value of the ‘industry’.
There was a reason why (or so I thought?) the last of the three ‘R’s was recycle. You were supposed to Reduce the use of these materials first, if you had to use them, then Reuse them, but, if after Reducing and Reusing you were still left with waste then you should Recycle. For the majority of society and business in the UK, the last of the three ‘R’s has been promoted to being the first.
As an example, take the recent (ish) news story about black plastics used in food packaging being currently unrecyclable. The story got loads of coverage, being discussed on peak viewing programs such as the One Show, but the discussions all revolved around the need to find a way to recycle this product, the only way to overcome this issue it would seem was to find a way of recycling them. Surely the way of resolving this issue was actually to reduce the use of this type of plastic in the first place, instead, because we have become so conditioned to the mantra that recycling is the way forward, I didn’t once hear this mentioned as being the solution.
We all know what plastics are doing to our planet, to the seas and to wildlife. Our priority has to be reducing the use of materials like plastic, not recycling them. Reducing might not be an industry worth multi billions of pounds but it is, surely, the only way forward if we truly want to become sustainable.
Twenty years ago it might have upset people to say that recycling was a symptom of unsustainability, it might even have been said in a moment of jaded cynicism, but do you know what, I think I was right.