It used to be about saving money. Now it’s about trying to save the planet.

It’s an obvious solution: ever more expensive raw materials, especially metals like copper, add powerful incentives to recover them by recycling things made from those materials. Yet there’s nothing new about recycling. In fact, consumers used to be paid directly to recycle. The volume of consumer waste pales beside that of industrial waste, but recycling consumer waste is still a big deal these days. It is also big business. The trick has always been to get it from where it is consumed or discarded to where it can be reprocessed or reused. Governments that collect things like old toasters do most of the heavy lifting, but they rely on us for the fiddly bits. Thus we increasingly conscientious consumers, motivated mostly by altruism and a sense of civic duty, dutifully sort our rubbish into paper, plastic, aluminium, glass, old clothes, appliances and furniture and non-recyclables.

Recycling an old toaster or even an empty bottle costs more than just plonking it in a hole in the ground. To cover the extra costs, governments sell what they can to firms that pull the toaster apart then sell on its steel, plastic and copper, or crush old bottles to melt to make new bottles. New firms are sprouting up to make useful things like Lego bricks out of old plastic cups. We just hope that all that processing doesn’t hurt the planet in other ways, for example by adding more to carbon footprints in transport and processing. One idea might be to generate less waste. This should be possible, since we generate so much more rubbish than we used to. Fifty years ago, an average household garbage bin held about 100 litres and was collected once a week. A standard household wheelie bin of 240 litres is now collected twice a week, sometimes more. Have households become bigger? No, in fact, if anything, they’ve shrunk, from five to three people on average. Are we actually recycling less than we once did? Possibly.

Unlike today’s version, recycling in the days of the 100 litre bin was pretty low tech. If you bought a soft drink from your local shop, its price included a refundable deposit. Take the empty bottle back to a shop that sold that brand of soft drink and they would refund a cent or two. They would then send the empty bottles back to the supplier when the next crate of full bottles was delivered. Children could supplement their pocket money by finding and returning discarded bottles, others did it for charity. Glass gave way to aluminium cans and plastic bottles, neither of which can easily be returned to the vendor. But the aluminium can be collected in dedicated bins and is relatively easily melted down to make new cans, helping reduce the planet cooking electricity generation that smelting bauxite into new aluminium entails.

The other nice little earner was old newspapers, which were useful for lots of things. You could, of course, wrap food scraps in it, but that would be a waste. Why? Because old newspaper can be recycled twice: first by the greengrocer, who was happy to pay willing helpers for newspaper to wrap vegetables in. The sheets of newspaper were laid out flat, one upon the other, until they formed a flat pile several centimetres high, taking care to make the pile only as big as your little arms could carry. They were rolled up and tied firmly with string and proudly heaved to the greengrocer who weighed the pile and paid you a few cents and thanked you for your help. Those newspapers would then find their way into someone’s kitchen, possibly even your own, where they could be used to wrap food scraps or serve as bin liners.

Alas, busy lives, packaged food and plastic carry bags killed that activity and added to the volume of planet destroying waste that now needs to be expensively recycled or incinerated after it fills up a couple of planet unfriendly plastic garbage bags and that ever expanding wheelie bin. Of course, the world and our lives have changed too much to return to the era of refundable bottles and vegetables wrapped in newspaper. But it’s still worth asking what happens to the plastic and other packaging, much of it unnecessary, that comes with just about everything we buy.

Featured image by Pixabay on Pexels.

Frances Cowell
Australian-born and European by adoption, Frances Cowell writes and speaks at conferences about investment risk and governance, financial market stability and business ethics in financial markets – and the implications for the wider political economy. She believes Europe must urgently assume the lead in protecting and preserving liberal democracy, the rule of law and the multi-lateral institutions and alliances that it depends on.

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