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How the drive to make profit puts limitations on recycling

This article is over 4 years, 6 months old
Most people in Britain recycle—yet staggering amounts of waste go to landfill. That’s because the real problem is how capitalism operates, not individual behaviour, writes Gabby Thorpe
Issue 2667
Recycling is popular - so why doesnt it have more impact?
Recycling is popular – so why doesn’t it have more impact? (Pic: Meriwether Lewis Elementary School/Flickr)

Recycling is touted as a key way to tackle climate change.

But a staggering 91 percent of plastic waste alone isn’t recycled, according to a study published last December.

Instead it is dumped or burned, causing more pollution.

Up to 12.7 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean each year. It is estimated that by 2050 plastic in the ocean will outweigh sea life.

Governments regularly encourage us to recycle—and around 75 percent of people in Britain and the US do so. So why is it making so little difference?

One problem is the difficulty of recycling plastic. A majority of councils in Britain don’t have the infrastructure needed to correctly recycle all the different types of plastic.

Many products are made up of low grade plastic—such as microwave meal packaging—and this is more difficult and costly to recycle.

As a result plastic is sent abroad, where it ends up in landfill.

China, previously a top importer of plastic waste, last year declared that it will not take any more “foreign rubbish”. It was an attempt to clean up China’s own environment.

Some bosses in Malaysia saw an opportunity to profit from this, and set up their own recycling businesses.


But Malaysia is now overrun—and the state is clamping down on “illegal” recycling units that are generating more pollution.

In the Malaysian town of Jenjarom illegal recycling plants have left 19,000 tonnes of rubbish in landfill.

Some recycling firms there have burned types of plastic that couldn’t be easily processed and re-sold.Malaysia has now joined China, saying it will return 450 tonnes of toxic plastic waste to the countries that it came from.

But poor infrastructure isn’t the main reason why recycling isn’t working out. The real problem is profit.

In the case of plastic, different types have different values. Some can be recycled and reused quite cheaply, whereas others cannot. For firms that buy mixed plastic in bulk, it’s cheaper to burn or dump less valuable plastics than to recycle it.

And for recycling to really make the impact needed to save the planet, recycled materials would have to completely replace new ones in manufacturing.

But it is a lot cheaper for businesses to manufacture new plastics than to invest in the technologies needed to recycle old ones. And while we are lectured about the need to recycle, businesses produce far more waste than individuals.

Almost all plastics are made from petrochemicals that come from fossil fuels. Capitalism remains committed to these dirty fuels (see below).

We should demand that more plastic is recycled. But to make a real difference to the environment, we need to get rid of a society where profit comes before the planet.

Plastic – a deadly product of fossil fuel capitalism

The plastic that clogs our oceans is linked directly to fossil fuel capitalism.

More than 99 percent of plastics are made using petrochemicals produced from fossil fuels.

Discarded plastic is clogging up our oceans

Discarded plastic is clogging up our oceans (Pic: Bo Eide/Flickr)

Since 1988 just 100 fossil fuel companies have been responsible for 71 percent of global emissions.

Capitalism has been built on fossil fuels and getting rid of them today would mean enormous financial losses for business. Under capitalism production is controlled by a tiny minority whose main interest is to make money.

Ordinary people don’t get a say over, for instance, what materials are used in packaging.

But a socialist society would see real democracy and collective decision-making.

It would be able to move away from fossil fuels completely.

And it would unleash human creativity that could develop alternative materials and explore better ways to deal with waste. Capitalism is driven by profit.

That means waste and overproduction as competing bosses try and grab all the market for particular products.

But socialism would produce only what was needed.

No amount of recycling or re-using plastic bags will make up for the appalling damage that capitalism has wreaked on the environment.

We need a socialist society to secure the future of our planet.

Don’t fall for Tory greenwash

A Channel 4 investigation into plastic bags exposed another bit of government greenwashing last week.

Sales of plastic bags at major retailers has reportedly dropped by 90 percent following the 5p bag charge introduced in 2015.

But “bags for life” are not included in these figures.

A bag for life is much thicker, and uses more plastic in its production, than a disposable carrier bag.

It is designed to be reused. But the average household still purchases 44 bags for life per year.

A 1.1 billion 5p plastic bags are still being sold.And a reusable cotton bag must be used over 100 times to cancel the environmental damage done by a single use plastic bag.

Whose waste is it?

  • Government figures estimate that Britain produced 41.1 million tonnes of commercial and industrial waste in 2016
  • Supermarkets in Britain are thought to produce 800,000 tonnes of plastic every year
  • A study in June found that nearly half of it can’t be easily recycled

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