“I don’t believe in recycling.”
“What do you mean, you don’t believe in recycling? It’s not something you can just ‘not believe in’.”
“I don’t believe in it like I don’t believe in unicorns. Have you ever seen your rubbish recycled? No. It just gets taken away and then no one knows what happens to it after that.”
“It gets taken away and then it gets recycled.”
“How, and by whom, and into what? How do they even separate it all? I bet it all just gets burnt or sent to a landfill at the other side of the world.”
“You’re an idiot.”
The above is a conversation I had with my girlfriend last year. I’m the one being called an idiot.
To be clear, I do believe in recycling – mostly. I was just winding her up.
But I do find it strange that we take so much effort to separate out our rubbish into recycling and non-recycling, but that no one ever seems to know what happens to it after that.
And I think it’s funny that so many of us put so much faith into a system we know so little about.
As it turns out, most of our recycling really does get shipped abroad.
From BBC news on Monday:
The National Audit Office (NAO) says over half of the packaging reported as recycled is actually being sent abroad to be processed.
As a result, it says, the government has little idea of whether the recyclables are getting turned into new products, buried in landfill or burned.
While an illusion of success has been created by the UK’s system for recycling packaging, the NAO says, the reality may be quite different.
The article states that between 1998 and 2017 UK recycling has increased from 31% to 64%. But the quantity the UK recycles has stayed the same, while the amount it ships abroad has increased six-fold.
And even worse, the NAO says there is nothing to prove any of the packaging sent to be recycled actually gets recycled.
Of course, the waste that gets shipped abroad might end up recycled. Buy we have no way of knowing.
It all reminds me of a World War II propaganda campaign I heard about as a kid.
This generation’s iron railings
I grew up in a tiny village outside of Leeds. Much of the architecture and structures around the village were very old, and the residents liked to keep it that way.
On quite a few of the shorter walls you could see stubs of iron sticking up.
I once asked around what these stubs were there for and I was told they were originally railings.
It turned out that during World War II the government went around villages and towns cutting down metal railings to melt down and turn into planes and artillery.
Of course, the metal they collected was nowhere near pure enough to be used for these purposes and it all needed up in landfills.
The thing is, it was never intended to be used. The government knew this. It was all just a propaganda drive to make people feel involved. Like they were doing their part for the war effort.
Back when I heard this there was no Google to check up on the story. Other people I talked to said someone was having me on. But it turns out it’s all true.
When iron gates and railings were cut down to help the war effort in the 1940s, what happened next is a mystery and has been a matter of conjecture for many decades.
Faced with an oversupply, rather than halt the collection, which had turned out to be a unifying effort for the country and of great propaganda value, the government allowed it to continue. The ironwork collected was stockpiled away from public view in depots, quarries, railway sidings. After the war, even when raw materials were still in short supply, the widely held view is that the government did not want to reveal that the sacrifice of so much highly valued ironwork had been in vain, and so it was quietly disposed of, or even buried in landfill or at sea.
If you google “railings cut down World War II”, you’ll find plenty of evidence the story was real.
Unlike the railings though, the plastic dumped in landfills could soon be recycled – for real this time.
What if we can eat our way out of trouble?
Fake recycling is a problem the world over.
I think it’s probably become such a big problem because people feel as though they are helping when they sort their rubbish. They’re “doing their bit”.
Who cares what happens after I’ve sorted my rubbish? I’ve done my bit. I can switch off now.
This, however, wasn’t the route Miranda Wang took.
Wang is the first to discover a chemical process that tackles the end-of-life of plastic. She first learned the scale of the problem in eighth grade with her friend, Jeanny Yao, when they visited a city waste recycling plant in Vancouver, Canada where they grew up. “That’s when we learnt that even plastics that are put into a curbside recycling bin end up being exported overseas in developing countries where they become ocean pollution,” she says.
She and her friend started their company, BioCellection, in University and it has grown from there.
As they state on their website:
Today, only 8% of plastic packaging gets recycled worldwide. The rest goes to landfills, incinerators, and oceans. We aim to protect our environment through creating innovative recycling processes for post-consumer waste plastics that no one else can recycle and by converting them into virgin quality building blocks for sustainable supply chains.
Their process turns polyethylene into a usable material. From the Wired article:
“Our vision is to transform a polyethylene, which right now does not have any downstream market value once its consumed and is used for one life cycle, and we turn it into a chemical that is of the same quality as what is immediately made from petroleum – adipic acid,” said Wang. “This first helps us not allow film plastics from becoming pollution and second is that it actually displaces petroleum from being needed to be extracted to make new materials.”
And, perhaps most importantly, their process is scalable.
From the initial 10 plastic bags in a 500 milliliter flask breaking down in three hours, she is creating a continuous five litre system. In October, they will conduct a demonstration pilot at a plant in San Leandro, California, where over three months, 17 metric tons of plastic film waste will be converted into six metric tons of organic chemicals.
Crucially, it will also provide much needed data about how the system will work at a larger scale. “At the moment it is impossible for us to know exactly how our reaction will work on an industrial scale what the exact economics will be,” says Wang.
In 2019, they plan to build an even larger machine that will process five metric tons of plastic waste per day. This will be standardised, replicated and transported anywhere in the world where there is a lot of waste, where it can be plugged into a wall and left to run.
So it’s true that most recycling may be a con. But there is hope on the horizon.
I suppose the question is, why didn’t someone come up with something like this sooner?
Until next time,
Editor, Exponential Investor