Is recycling sufficient to prevent human extinction?

Written by Evisa Saliaj

Recycling itself cannot tackle climate change problems and a prompt conversion of our business models to the circular economy is crucial for future sustainability 

When we are asked to think about some daily practices which are not simply environmentally friendly, such as cycling instead of driving, but can effectively address the problem of the impact of human activities, many of us think of recycling.
According to Eurostat, almost 75% of Europeans think (partly wrongly) that separating the waste at home is their biggest contribution to tackle climate change.
Besides consumers, the same misleading “belief” seems to be widespread also among companies and even sometimes institutions and governments since these players often openly declare their commitment to become a more “recycling society”, which does not necessarily mean a more “sustainable society”, where sustainability indicates the capability to preserve the ecological capital for the future generations. 

We frequently see a certain confusion among self-appointed green countries and cities: for instance, considering the total amount of waste and the percentage recycled in two European countries, Denmark and Slovakia, Eurostat data (2014) show that the two members recycled respectively 48.1% and 40.9% of their total waste. 

At first sight one would conclude that Denmark is more sustainable than Slovakia given the higher percentage of reused discards.
Nevertheless, if we look at the absolute numbers of waste we realise that in addition to the high recycling percentage, Denmark has a remarkable residual waste fraction (which is landfilled) that amounted to 1.5889 ton/capita/year whilst Slovakia generated only 0.7917 ton/capita/year. This implicates, in terms of material and energy flow spent, that Slovakia is more sustainable than Denmark. 
Therefore, sustainability is not a matter of -only- recycling more but rather of generating less waste.

Regrettably, optimal solutions for the environmental issue and its aftermaths, such as depletion of raw materials and their consequent price instability, health problems for human beings and shortage of resources given the projections of population growth, are far more subtle and more complex than recycling. 
On one hand, this practice must certainly be encouraged since keeps materials in use, reducing the demand for extracting and producing new materials and delaying the time before the materials become waste. On the other hand, recycling is not enough to prevent human extinction and the latest warning in order of time, launched some days ago by Cristina Pasca Palmer, the United Nation’s biodiversity executive secretary, is a clear and undisputed signal of that. Palmer said that “The world must thrash out a new deal for nature in the next two years or humanity could be the first species to document its own extinction”.

Moreover, other factors have to be taken into consideration: recycling cannot prevent the production of waste upstream and it preserves only about 20% of the value of products (the rest 80% of the value generated is lost); it is expensive (in terms of costs and resources spent, such as energy and workforce) and companies that decide to include recycled materials in the production, often see their profits narrowing; in some contexts and for certain products, recycling can have even a worse environmental impact than landfilling.

Finally, the situation degenerates if you think of the predictions for the future: the “What a waste” report of the Wold Bank (2018, updated version) projects that "rapid urbanization, population growth, and economic development will push global waste to increase by 70% over the next 30 years - to a staggering 3.40 billion tonnes of waste generated annually." 

Given the above cited considerations, what should we then conclude? Is there any light at the end of the tunnel? Are we condemned to live buried under waste dumps?

A possible escape way exists: it consists of abandoning the “take-use-dispose” business model and embrace the circular economy, a new business and value model, which manages materials differently throughout the lifecycle of the product and seeks to address environmental issues starting with the initial design of a product, among other considerations.

To conclude, the awareness of environmental issues is substantially increasing but the same cannot be said about the effort we put to concretely preserve the ecosystem and therefore guarantee a sustainable future for us and the next generations. We need to evolve from a recycling society to a sustainable society and the timing is now perfect.