This is going to seem a rather odd post; given that I am the creator of one of the most successful Freecycle groups in the world – But I am a little annoyed to see that this year even more money is being dragged from me in the form of taxes to fund recycling schemes that frankly, do more harm than good.
I have always made a point in any interviews I give about Freecycle to never talk about landfill. The carefully crafted and commercially sponsored messages we get from Freecycle-Central in the USA are always about the evils of landfill and how the ultimate purpose of Freecycle is to keep things out of landfill sites; but I don’t agree with this. Not at all.
Freecycle for me isn’t about landfill or recycling it is about reuse and it is about helping people in the local community by making sure items are reused. To me, reuse schemes like Freecycle are actually about avoiding the evils of recycling, and in this sense I will do everything damned well possible to keep yet another thing out of one of those green, purple, blue, orange or polka-dot mauve bins. If you ever ask me my opinion (and oddly, people do); I will tell you that unless the item is made of aluminium or copper then just bin it. Send it to landfill, wave it on its way and thank any gods you may have that you saved the environment just a little bit more harm.
Recycling on a domestic level is pointless. Not only is it pointless, it is harmful and for some ridiculous reason, we are being forced to pay taxes to help this nonsense perpetuate. So why does it exist and why are Governments across Europe and North America starting to require more legislation to force us to recycle? The answer is sadly quite simple, there is a hell of a lot of money in Recycling and the people who are making all this money have damned good lobbyists.
Back when the world was somewhat more sensible we had three Rs. Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Why have we forgotten all the rest and got so hung up on the last one? Well lessee…
Reduction is the simple answer to most things but asking a modern Western family to reduce the amount of stuff it consumes is somewhat akin to teaching pigs to sing. It won’t get you anywhere and it will only annoy them. In this modern age we tend to be rather into convenience and convenience isn’t very compatible with reduction. There is a tendency to shift the blame from us to the companies who sell us stuff and in order to shift this collective guilt people will start to blame the Supermarkets and the manufacturers for their obsession with packaging. Surely, it is the packaging that is to blame and not us! We’d be just as happy with our stuff wrapped in old newspaper or in a recycled cardboard box.
Nice idea but that’s just not true. Packaging isn’t cheap. Companies don’t go out of their way to spend too much money on the stuff when they could avoid it. Packaging is there for a reason, it stops items breaking and in the case of food, it stops food going off. Studies consistently show that the gains from packaging far outweigh the losses and over the last few years advances in designs have led to a lot less of it being used.
There’s a whole other argument about “Junk food” and processed food over home cooking. Fast food chains benefit from bulk packaging and the fact that they are only running a room full of cookers to generate a whole lot of cooked food does have its plusses. As for processed foods, well contrary to what we are endlessly told there is very little waste at all from the processed food industry. The food we as humans get lasts longer and stores better and the byproducts go towards animal foods. I don’t want to make this an argument about animal welfare, that’s a completely different issue (and I really do hate to defend the modern chicken processing industry in any way at all, really I do) but it is worth noting that in reduction terms, modern commercial processing of 1,000 chickens recycles just under a metric tonne of byproducts and only uses just under 8kg of packaging.
Does a modern family need to use all the stuff it has? Do those low income people on their council estates really need two cars? Well in most places in Britain that aren’t in one of the few cities the answer to the car issue is probably yes. Cars are not cheap, buying the thing, fuelling it, taxing, MOT-ing and insuring it cost a small fortune these days. There seems to be some middle-class Daily Mail reading view that the evil working classes have multiple cars through choice – Maybe if the money we spent on recycling schemes went onto public transport instead… But I am getting ahead of myself here.
Reuse is obvious a biggie for me – Personally, I don’t like waste. If I can find a use for an old plastic bottle then I will use it and carry on re-using it. I have some juice jars here that I have been using for milk now for over 2 years – They are wonderful, far better than anything I could buy at a supermarket and they were free. I love car-boot sales and yard sales, I love thrift stores. I am not at all ashamed of driving down the street screaming “Oooh! Other people’s crap!” as I stop at yet another yard sale.
I picked up on Freecycle very early on for this reason; it was a near perfect scheme in that one person’s junk is another person’s gold and more to the point, the whole thing is local so there are no major logistics in transportation involved. It also made sense. I have found myself with perfectly usable things that I didn’t want any more that I know somebody else would probably love but I didn’t have a means to tell them. Freecycle answered this beautifully. It keeps useful items from being pointlessly destroyed, it saves people money because they don’t have to buy something new and it helps people who can’t afford new things enormously.
Nobody forces anybody to use Freecycle; there is no government legislation in fact there is no government or commercial backing at all in the UK. It is, in fact, very hard to get anyone in government interested at all since they are obsessed with Recycling schemes.
Of course, not everybody is on Freecycle; very few people have ever heard of Freecycle but it doesn’t stop people reusing things. Some families still recycle clothes and pass larger items around but this doesn’t seem to happen as much these days which are where local schemes can be wonderfully useful when they exist. In the past it could well be argued that certainly in Britain, Charity Shops filled this niche. People would donate stuff they no longer wanted to one of the local shops and they would sell them cheaply to the local community and make a small profit at the same time. Unfortunately it seems to be the case with what a few exceptions (thank you Salvation Army, for example for letting me have at least ONE exception), charity shops have changed. These days the used goods they sell are generally more expensive than new items you get a Primark, TK-Maxx or Poundland and their book prices are becoming astronomical. Clothing that is deigned “unfit for sale” is sent off to be pulped and that tends to be anything without a designer-label that won’t sell for their increasingly large prices. Something has gone horribly wrong in the world of the Charity Shop so I guess now, we need to praise the fact that Freecycle and Car Boot Sales exist to feed local reuse needs.
And now… The biggie. Third on the list for a reason and that is because it is the least important by far and yet it is the one that is given extraordinary amounts of attention and obsession and huge amounts of state funding wherever you look.
Why? Simple. Recycling is easy!
When our Daily Mail readers pack the kids to school with the bottles of pop, their packaged snacks and the like, they are safe in the knowledge that this is ok because all the packaging will be recycled. It’s far easier to buy a bottle of pop than it is to mix some squash in a reusable bottle. Who has time for that? By the same notion, it is far easier to throw those items away into a recycling bin than to maybe think that they could be used again, or given to somebody else who may use them. After all, they’ll be recycled and made into a new ones just like the TV ads say! It’s not like it’s really going to waste is it. By recycling things, people are safely protected from having to think about reduction and reuse. They are doing their bit still.
Sadly, it is true that recycling is both easy and guilt free. It is positively encouraged and indeed, legislated for now. Houses have an increasing number of different bins that they sort their rubbish into and off it all goes, saved from landfill and everybody is happy.
Not only that – We can buy more and more recycled stuff too! Notepads made of recycled paper, recycled Christmas Cards, hell there is even recycled toilet paper. This stuff is all made out of pulped clothing and recycled paper so there was no waste, no damage to the rainforests and we can feel great.
It’s a shame it’s not true.
There is very little good in recycling on a domestic level. I don’t want to go into enormous amounts of facts and figures, search the Internet for something like the Eight Great Myths of Recycling (or just look at http://www.perc.org/articles/article179.php ) if you want them. The point is, we are not running out of sand and we are certainly not running out of paper. When sand shortages start to become an issue then yes, maybe we should worry about recycling bottles but until then, why bother? As for paper that’s a whole big hornet’s nest.
Recycling paper has a big negative effect on the environment. Think about that for a moment, it’s important. It is bad on so many levels – Let’s take a simplistic look.
- The amount of fuel being used to pick up used paper on a local level is enormous. Those trucks give out pollution you know. That’s CO2.
- Once the paper is at a depots, it needs to be sorted. This involves machines, which again give out pollution and use electricity. Oh yea… More CO2.
- The paper is dirty, and needs cleaning. Sure you may not mind your recycled papers being a bit brown but the old dyes still need to be washed out and most large users still want white paper so there is going to be an industrial sized bleaching operation going on here. Waste… More waste, and more and more CO2 being pumped into the environment.
You know what helps CO2? Trees. And you know what paper is made out of? Trees. Not slow growing, unreplenishable rainforest trees, the cost of getting those trees would be enormous and those are far more often used in furniture (which can be reused remember, paper generally can’t!). The trees used for making paper come from large areas of concentrated fast growing sustainable forest. Forest that helps enormously with the whole global warming deal that people are so concerned about. The process of turning these trees into paper is large-scale but localised, and whilst it does obvious use some resources to harvest and process, it is a small tiny fraction of the ones used in the recycling process. The more we recycle paper, the more CO2 we are putting into the environment that isn’t being replenished and the more trees are not being planted in sustainable forests. You know what that means? Recycling paper is polluting the earth with its by-products, killing us slowly with its CO2 emissions and it is actually reducing the amount of forest we have on the planet.
So what about glass? Again the resources used in localised transport of glass from houses, sorting it, crushing is and reusing it far far outweigh the resources in making new glass from sand. Sand isn’t something we are running out of in a hurry; really, it’s not.
Plastics are a contentious issue in this. There is no argument that making new plastic uses oil and there is a positive effect to recycling some plastics; the problem again is in the selection and sorting process which tends to still use more resources overall than not recycling. I remember a scheme a few years ago that was looking into basically melting down every sort of plastic and re-processing it to re-produce oil. This would almost certainly be a good thing but we haven’t got there yet and the folks who understand the economics of this claim that burying all the plastics we have in landfill for now, and mining it later would be far more efficient than the picky and mostly wasteful recycling we do now.
In doing a little bit of research for this post I did read quite a few opinions on everything and a lot of the anti-recycling articles I have seen state things like: “Recycling things like paper, aluminium cans, etc. are among the most harmful ways to pollute the environment and use fossil fuels.” – This is a shame because the person who wrote this is talking nonsense. Actually, aluminium cans are one of the few things that are very much viable to recycle, along with copper and other large metal items in general. It is easy to take the negative effect of paper and bottles and stretch this to everything and if you do bother to read “Eight Great Myths”, for example, you should pick up the fact that the big evil is the small scale house to house recycling and not much larger selective schemes which can sometimes, be positive. Scrap metals, tyres and fast-food company cooking oils are all good examples of positive recycling.
Landfill is often cited as the main great evils of our green age. Freecycle almost has this whole thing about keeping things out of landfill as a mantra. Companies make a LOT of money out of recycling and there are a hell of a lot of commercial pressures to keep up these myths. There isn’t a lot of money in landfill so it tends to lose the PR battle. But is landfill really so evil?
Actually no. Not at all – And this is one of the reason I refuse to go on about keeping things out of landfill. Modern landfills have moved on in technology; if you don’t believe me look some up! They tend to be huge centralised places that are landscaped over when they are finished; they don’t cause pollution, they are well managed and the more modern ones are re-using the methane produced by organic waste to generate electricity. Landfill sites are certainly not the great open fly infested visions of hell that recycling evangelists would have us believe – Quite the opposite in fact. A lot of them are also being designed now with the prospects of future recycling being taken into consideration. One day we may come up with a much more efficient use of plastics and when we do, we know exactly where they are in the landfill sites and we can easily get at them in bulk. When you stop and think about it, that’s actually pretty cool.
Ultimately there are people on both sides of this debate and it’s one I try not to get too involved with. I am forced (legally!) to recycle things and it grates at me every time I have to put used paper into a recycling bin. I hate it, but it’s happening anyway. I can’t stop people doing this, I can only hope that at some point governments will stop listening to the companies who make billions from recycling schemes that are both pointless and damaging and will come up with some other schemes. Meanwhile, I will carry on pushing for local reuse schemes like Freecycle and its offshoots and supporting yard sales and car boot sales. I will also carry on supporting the Salvation Army shops who have so far refused to forget their purpose as cheap local-community charity shops and companies like Frenchys in Atlantic Canada who keep millions of tonnes of clothing from otherwise being pulped to make recycled bloody paper!
So should you.