Sustainability: The Politics of Recycling

Karen Zhang, Maroon-News Staff

Many people on campus would claim that they are stalwart supporters of recycling efforts. Me too. Instead of dumping everything into the main garbage bin, I consciously collect the used papers and plastic bottles and carefully put them into the recycling bins with the correct labels, feeling content that I have done something good for the environment. However, it was until recently that I realized that my so-called “environment-friendly actions” might be nothing more than some psychological comfort for myself. The complexity of the recycling industry means that our individual recycling efforts might be futile for making our environment more sustainable.

To begin with, our naive impression that the recycling industry is a sustainable industry owned by people who are truly concerned about the environment simply does not hold. Just like all other industrial sectors, the recycling industry is largely owned by businessmen who are primarily concerned with profits. Because of the preoccupation with profits, they often choose to export the recyclable waste to other countries, where the price of labor is relatively lower and the environmental regulation is lax. The recyclable waste can then be made into new products at lower costs, often at the expense of the environment. In fact, the unsustainable recycling plants in countries like China have generated massive water and air pollution, which was one of the core reasons for China to reject the import of foreign waste. While we casually give a pat on the back for our recycling efforts, our recyclable waste is actually piling up in landfills today and has become a source of pollution in Southeast Asian countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia, which have taken over the business of recycling after China opted out.

Recycling efforts, it seems, will remain largely ineffective until the recycling industry starts to adopt clean and efficient technologies, which is unlikely to happen if the profit-driven businessmen continue to control the industry, and the less developed countries continue to willingly support the waste trade. However, even if recycling technology has improved, I believe the overemphasis on recycling, as if it is a way to solve the environmental problem once and for all, should still be questioned. Why are we only emphasizing recycling, when reducing and reusing are often more sustainable for the environment? Isn’t the issue of massive amounts of waste, most of which cannot be recycled, a more serious problem? The disproportionate emphasis on recycling has become an excuse for our insatiable desires for consumption, which can be especially detrimental to the environment. We are now accustomed to casually taking resources from the natural environment, using them, throwing them away and moving on. Just take a look at how much waste we throw away at the end of each semester. If we continue to live this kind of unsustainable lifestyle, our recycling efforts are simply window-dressing. No matter how we invest in recycling, the environment will still not be able to keep up with the pace of our massive consumption.

What I am saying here is not that we should give up recycling. After all, it is still an environment-friendly habit. What I do hope is that we can be more aware of the politics of recycling and more reflective of our recycling practices.