Guest blog – A recycled argument by Ian Parsons

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.

 

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20 Comments

  1. M Parry says:

    Yes, here here. Loads of people (at my supposedly green workplace) were using coffee shop-type paper cups all day, instead of a proper mug. I kept telling people off, and getting the answer "they're re-cyclable". (They are special re-cyclable ones apparently, but so what.) What is the matter with people! The three Rs don't get mentioned so much these days. Time to go back to them.

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    • Les Wallace says:

      Could be an idea to suggest that if the paper cups are withdrawn this will not only cut waste at source but some of the financial savings could be passed on to a good cause instead. I am hoping that they'll do this for those silly plastic cups they provide at water dispensers at a place I used to work at, but getting in touch with their 'green' person is proving difficult.

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  2. John Law says:

    A refundable deposit of 50p on plastic bottles would see them akk picked up and not thrown into hedges etc.

    Time to start the end of plastic.

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  3. John Beal says:

    You were, and are, definitely right, Ian

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  4. David Norman says:

    Quite correct, Ian, but I always thought there were four Rs - Reduce, Reuse/ Repair, Recycle. But most manufactured goods are so complicated, and/ or the cost of Repair is so high compared to the cost of a new one, that we almost always Replace rather than Repair!

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    • filbert cobb says:

      Corporate policies conspire against reduction of demand. As I keep telling Mrs C, Apple products have obscene obsolescence built in to them, apparently on an ever-shorter cyclic basis, and the cost of replacing one tiny little screw by the "Geniuses" in Southampton exceeds the cost of purchasing a new MacBook Pro by some measure. Windows systems, while less user-friendly, do at least require only the fingers of one person to reboot them and the third-party component market allows the gradual evolution of a blindingly-fast Trigger's PC that also serves as a dust filter

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  5. Jonathan Wallace says:

    To be fair, the PM's statement talked about reducing plastic waste, not just recycling it but, of course, words are cheap and we shall have to see what actually happens.
    You are quite right that we need to move away from using so much material in the first place rather than thinking it will all be ok if we just stick it in the green bin after we have ripped it off the product we have bought. I would be careful though not to disparage recycling too much - there will always be some waste no matter how good we get at the 'reduce re-use' side of things and we should encourage people to develop and maintain the habit of recycling these irreducible wastes as well as doing what they can to avoid generating waste in the first place.

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  6. AlanTwo says:

    Really good article, Ian. It seems as though all politicians and even many conservation groups are only interested in measures that increase economic activity or offer a commercial opportunity for someone.
    The very notion that we might pursue something simply because it's the right thing to do is looked on as faintly ridiculous.

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  7. murray marr says:

    'recycling has become a massive industry, trading in our unsustainability.'

    Very well put and horribly true.

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  8. Roderick Leslie says:

    Spot on, Ian.

    If you start unpacking this issue further it gets worse and worse: packaging in the food industry isn't just about convenience - its about pushing profits, and whilst no doubt the industry would argue it's only responding to consumer demand, it isn't - it's driving it. The more packaged your food the higher the profit margin - the industry simply loathes fresh, loose veg - low price, low margins and it goes off.

    It loves ready meals - the cheapest ingredients masked by a strong sauce and a nice long shelf life, and top-end prices and mark up in the 100s, not 10s, %. And, of course, lots of packaging - the plastic container must have an attractive graphic cardboard outer extolling the wonders of the contents.

    And then there's those coffee cups....

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    • filbert cobb says:

      "those coffee cups" ...

      ... and bottled water. When I was a schoolboy you were in Big Trouble if you were seen eating or drinking in the street, even out of uniform. Now it appears to be compulsory. Is it some kind of virtue signalling? "I'm so busy I don't have time to eat or drink sitting down, indoors". "I'm so busy, important and hyperactive that I need continuous rehydration". Or is it an obsessive compulsive disorder, like checking a phone more than once a week?

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      • Les Wallace says:

        Bottled water is obscene - my local Aldi has the shelves running along two of its six checkouts stocked with nothing apart from Strathrowan bottled water. £1.49 for 12 piddly plastic bottles enshrouded in polythene for something you can get out of the tap.

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        • Les Wallace says:

          Since I wrote this yesterday I went to my other local supermarket, Tesco Redding (in Falkirk), and when I went to the self service checkout was rather aghast to see that most of the space on the 'last minute buy' shelves is now taken up by bottled water too. Imagine if the money spent on this crap went into conservation instead? All the more disgusting that the Wildlife Trusts and the Woodland Trust Scotland entered into sponsorship agreements with bottled water suppliers.

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  9. Dr M Parry says:

    Ridiculous isn't it, that people can't just wait a while to get what they want. Then half the single-use items wouldn't be 'needed'.

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  10. Les Wallace says:

    Reduce, reuse, recycle are very much inter related, complimentary and parallel issues - it's not one over the other, never has been and the idea that the promotion of recycling has prevented reduce at source is a fallacy simply on the grounds that recycling hasn't been promoted either - we've just been given bins to put the stuff in. I was one of the people that brought kerbside recycling back into the public domain way back in 1989 and it became very apparent that the pathetic lack of interest in public education and the appalling complacency about getting school children involved would mean none of the 3Rs would prosper. Since many people still struggle to use a litter bin it can hardly be surprising that recycling rates are actually pretty abysmal in terms of participation and quality of material collected. A recent report has found that Scottish local authorities are losing £54 million per year due to people not using their kerbside collection properly - a tenner for every man, woman and child in the country. Two years ago at the induction for a new job the 21 year old company rep came forward to proudly tell us she couldn't be bothered using the company's recycling facilities and her favourite bin was the one for rubbish. Most companies aren't much better. I say this because there has been a terrible tendency in the past to imply there is something inherently flawed about recycling and that you can't do it without stopping people (i.e 'the plebs' that don't read the Guardian or the Independent) from reducing and reusing, when in fact recycling has been suffering from exactly the same thing that has been stopping reduce and reuse - a disgusting lack of information. Many of the 'recycling' companies have actually been dumping the stuff here or abroad and/or sending it for incineration and tried to palm that of as a form of 'recycling'.

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  11. Mike Haden says:

    All excellent points. The rise of plastic packing can be distilled down to cheapness of production and perhaps more importantly cost of transportation. Previously the majority of containers were glass. The manufacture of glass products is very energy (carbon) intensive, it weights more than plastic so transportation costs increase (more carbon). Now glass can be recycled, but even then it still consumes a large amount of energy.

    The drive to reduce carbon emissions gave plastic the hook it needed and it took over. Now we have another environmental issue as a direct consequence of reducing carbon emissions (a direct parallel with diesel/petrol cars).

    Unfortunately the only thing that will solve all this Reduce, does not fit in with the systems we have that rely on financial growth year on year.

    I think that pandora's box is well and truly open.

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  12. filbert cobb says:

    A list:
    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/analysis-and-features/disposable-coffee-cups-plastic-bags-pollution-how-to-reduce-business-consumers-a8155576.html

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  13. milly says:

    Thank you for your guest blog - a very sound point! I think that there are many more 'R's that come before recycling too. Refuse (as in 'say no to' rather than refuse as in rubbish), re-design, reinforce (make stronger so it lasts longer), re-gift, repair, re-think, re-use, re-purpose. There is a similar thing that happens in discourse about energy - it is seldom focused on using less of it, so much more about how can we replace the fossil fuel energy with sustainable sources. Again, I imagine because using less means a dent in industry profits and GDP. We urgently need a more useful measure of 'progress'.

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  14. nimby says:

    Well said Ian, pleased it's not just me who has been frustrated by lack of application of the various 'R's@ over the last couple of decades.

    I do refuse 'disposable' recyclable or otherwise coffee cups, I do decline carrier bags and use cotton project bags instead. I try my best to buy direct from farms and local shops (greengrocers, bakers etc.). We do sort all our waste for the council (but where do they send it), we do compost, grow our own etc. But, it's still not enough but if we can spread the message and gets others to adopt a healthier lifestyles then critical mass can make a difference.

    How about a cyclical plastic economy, so it never leaves the system to become waste? See https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/publications/new-plastics-economy-catalysing-action

    Let's not forget that it was only November last year that Defra were reported to be using 1,400 plastic cups a day https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/nov/21/uk-environment-department-using-1400-disposable-coffee-cups-a-day So, can we really believe that Michael Gove let alone Theresa May are actually serious about tackling the issue of plastic? I'm not convinced the opposition is either but that's another discussion as they've not currently the power to legislate.

    If we as consumers review our lifestyles and refuse, then politicians and retailers will have to listen? Too busy, think back to when Parliamentarians thought a Harrier was an aeroplane and then remember what community campaigning has achieved (ok, we're not there yet but well on the way), social media is not the tool of the MSM and if we keep it factual #wewillwin, #spreadtheword

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  15. Mike Potter says:

    Excellent article that I'm sure made most of us think more clearly about the 'bleedin obvious' we'd lost sight of. Interesting to know the reasons why 2 people (currently) have 'disliked' the posting.

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