For our second episode we had the chance to discuss the waste management & recycling industry with Alexis McGivern. Student at the University of Oxford, she is pursuing an MPhil in Environmental Change & Management. In this episode we address several questions to understand the challenges behind waste management and recycling.
Is recycling the solution to waste? Are individuals responsible for recycling?
In this episode, Alexis dives deeper into the role of individuals but also explains that they should not be the only ones held accountable. The issue is an industry problem.
In fact, recycling is an extremely convenient narrative for industries. The industry makes us think that we should aim to recycle, when in fact, we should first be reducing our consumption, then reusing products and lastly, recycling. This should be the order of priority. Recycling should not be the step prioritised, like the industry encourages.
What are the main challenges faced by the recycling industry?
There are several issues within the recycling industry. First, we often confuse what is physically recyclable and what can actually be logistically recycled. Indeed, a lot of products are sold as recyclable when in fact they are not logistically recyclable (mixed forms of plastics for example). There is also a big burden in the logistics of recycling: it requires a high level of public commitment (knowing which waste goes where for example). Moreover, it takes time and labor resources to make sure that the waste goes to the right place. Another big issue is the problem of contaminated waste. This type of waste is too expensive to sort and often goes back to general waste, and makes us lose valuable resources.
Alexis also addresses the problem of exporting waste to countries which don’t necessarily have the infrastructure to deal with that waste. As a result, it hurts local communities and has drastic consequences on the environment.
How do we differentiate between legitimate commitments by industries and greenwashing?
It is important to understand that industries use buzzwords. Understanding language and terminology is crucial in pinpointing legitimate commitments. For instance, “ocean litter” is a term that is constantly used by industries to put the blame on individuals. A good way of determining legitimate commitments is to ask the following question: How are companies describing the problem? Are they taking responsibility for their action? Words such as “bio-plastic” or “compostable” are often used, and it is important to understand them. What does compostable actually mean? Compostable has multiple meanings: a banana is compostable, a compostable plastic is compostable but it needs to be sent to an industrial compostable facility in order to be composted. It is very hard for consumers on the outside to understand the terminology. A solution is to read a lot on the subject and learn everyday on specific vocabulary to pinpoint greenwashing.
Alexis explains in this episode the importance of reduction. In order to spot greenwashing, a good strategy is to find out if they put reduction as their top priority. If they don’t, their commitments are most likely not legitimate.
Reduction is the first and most important step, and although recycling is talked about the most, it really should be the last step after reducing and reusing.