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Long Distance, Short Life
Why Big Business Favours Recycling

by Simon Fairlie

from The Ecologist, Vol 22 no6, 1992

The recycling of items beyond repair is sensible practice. But in the past few years, manufacturers and retailers in Britain have promoted recycling as the “green” remedy to the problem of domestic waste. Recycling is a solution they can live with, since it favours centralized production and long distance distribution; reuse, on the other hand, gives an advantage to independent, locally-based producers — an advantage that corporate business stigmatizes as a “trade barrier”. Large companies also prefer recycling because it allows a continuing expansion of industrial throughput and provides a convenient environmental excuse for planned obsolescence. Environmental groups who emphasize recycling over durability are playing into the hands of big business.

Recycling gets a spectacularly good press in developed countries. Thousands of advertisements, press releases and scientific papers extolling its virtues are posted each week by environmental groups, local councils and, above all, businesses. Large companies vie with each other to flaunt their green credentials: Alcan Aluminium announces that it is recycling 56,000 cans brought back to Britain from the Antarctic;(1) British Nuclear Fuels sponsors “treecyclers” — cardboard depositories for office waste paper, which are sent out free.(2) Others promote schemes to recycle polythene film into rubbish bags,(3) plastic cups into coathangers(4) or paper into cow litter.(5) Much of the advertising is directed at children. Television’s cartoon eco-hero, Captain Planet, exhorts: “The best way to deal with waste is to recycle it! Don’t forget, Planeteers, the power is yours.”(6)

This barrage of propaganda has touched a chord in the public conscience. “Apparently, people experience guilt knowing that wasteful packaging will end up in a landfill,” says packaging consultant Inge Brissou. “They seem to question whether all packaging is strictly necessary, and the act of recycling seems to exonerate that guilt in some way”.(7) Many consumers now believe that the complex problems of overconsumption in the North can be solved simply by saving newspapers and smashing bottles in a bottle bank.

The public, however, are being deliberately misled. A cursory examination of some of the more serious studies on waste is sufficient to refute Captain Planet’s claim that recycling is the best way to deal with it. The US Environmental Protection Agency, for example, has defined a hierarchy of waste management systems which places source-reduction, including reuse of packaging, above recycling, incineration and landfill, in that order.(8) A report commissioned by Tetrapak, the drinks carton manufacturers, concluded that, in the UK, both reusable bottles and non-recyclable paper cartons were less environmentally-damaging than recycled containers .(9) McDonald’s hamburgers and the Environmental Defense Fund, working together, agreed that throwaway paper and plastic fast food wrappers are less harmful than recyclable polystyrene containers.(10) And Friends of the Earth UK have published a document entitled “Bring Back the Bring Back”, arguing strongly for reusable packaging.(11)

If recycling is recognized as a less than ideal solution in many situations, why has it received such widespread backing? Why are there not massive advertising campaigns to promote reuse or to reduce the consumption of unnecessary packaging? Undoubtedly, environmental campaigners have found that advocating recycling is an easy way to enlist support; and local councils have found that the establishment of bottle and can banks is a painless way to demonstrate concern for the environment. But the fanatical enthusiasm of business for recycling demands a more searching explanation.

Recycling Versus Reuse

The British Government Management Paper No.28 defines recycling as “the collection and separation of materials from waste and subsequent processing to produce marketable goods”.(12) This definition rightly excludes any form of reuse. Reuse means continuing to use an item rather than destroying or reprocessing it. Refilling bottles, washing plates or passing on unwanted clothes are all forms of reuse. When a car is scrapped, the chassis and bodywork are recycled, that is to say melted down into raw steel; the engine or carburettor, however, may be salvaged or reused by being placed in another car.

The distinction between reuse and various forms of recycling could hardly be more basic, yet it is frequently undermined. In a detailed study comparing the environmental benefits of various packaging systems, researchers David Pearce and Kerty Turner choose to group recycling and reuse under the same heading, by means of a mathematical equation which allows no distinction between the performance of refillable bottles and that of recyclable bottles.(13)

Consumers may become confused as well. They are, of course, aware that recycled toilet paper is not the same as reused toilet paper. But when they are asked to “recycle” old clothes in a “textile bank”, from which a proportion are sent to the needy of the Third World, while the rest are reprocessed, the word becomes more imprecise. Local councils regularly refer to the “recycling” of durables such as office furniture, meaning their resale, while those who practise the business of what used to be called “salvage” now find it more advantageous to describe themselves as “recyclers”. The confusion is arising because industry is keen to suppress the idea of reuse, whilst the environmental movement has failed to promote it.

Muck But No Brass

Recycling has been most successfully promoted in the so-called “packaging industry”. Countless studies and reports compare the environmental effects of different recycling and waste management strategies for packaging. But the wildly differing criteria used to assess environmental performance — energy expenditure, volume, weight, and convenience — mean that almost any conclusion can be reached.

One salient fact does emerge, however: with the single exception of aluminium cans, recycling packaging waste above a token level can be expensive. Time and again we hear the same story: “There are more good economic and technical reasons against recycling plastics than there are for it”; “The lesson… is that recycling facilities can be very expensive”; There is a “£160 million a year gap between the price the reclamation industry is prepared to pay for reusable household rubbish and the extra costs to councils involved in collecting it”.(16) The reasons are straightforward; the money spent collecting, transporting and reprocessing frequently make the recycled material more expensive than the original material.

Recycling is also economically precarious because as soon as the volume of collected material increases, the price it commands goes down. The situation is particularly acute in the US, where in 1991 most dealers stopped paying for green-tinted glass.(17) The US exports a surplus of over 6,500,000 tons of waste paper per year, much of it to Britain, thus lowering the price abroad.(18) Britain meanwhile, as long as it continues to import about 60 per cent of its paper products, will continue to have more waste paper than it can reprocess, which it will be obliged to dump or ship abroad at considerable expense.(19) An international trade in commodities implies the international transport of recyclable wastes.

That recycling is expensive does not mean that it is necessarily environmentally more damaging than other options. There may well be subsidies supporting the price of original materials, and there will be innumerable other uncosted externalities, too complex to assess. The financial cost of recycling generally comprises three factors: the energy, the plant and the labour involved in collecting, sorting and processing the material. Of these, energy and plant exact an environmental toll, while labour on the whole does not. Labour, however, is expensive; in their attempts to cut costs, recyclers will invest in specialized high-tech machinery.(20) Whether such mechanized systems are less environmentally-damaging than any other is anybody’s guess. Not only is there an overabundance of information — the cloud of conflicting statistics that analysts call “a gross deficiency of data” — but there is also no agreement upon the criteria for environmental soundness.

Life Cycles

Let us, then, adopt a different perspective. What happens, in Britain, when a consumer in Plymouth, say, lobs an empty beer or soft drink bottle — with a resounding crash — into the bottle bank? The broken glass, now known as cullet, may be taken to one of four recycling depots at Harlow in Essex, Wakefield or Barnsley in Yorkshire, or Alloa in Scotland, a journey of at least 200 miles. At the depot the cullet will be melted down and mixed with raw materials to make new glass bottles and jars.

The use of a percentage of cullet in the manufacturing process allows considerable savings to be made in raw materials, energy and water. However, glass is heavy and the raw materials are cheap. “The somewhat modest energy benefit of using cullet is more than offset by its higher cost… This higher price tag for cullet stems from the transportation and separation costs associated with glass recycling.”(21)

Molecules of our consumer’s bottle have now been fused into a new “recycled” bottle. This bottle might then be transported 70 miles from the glass depot to Sussex to be filled with beer. From there it might be trucked another 200 miles to Shropshire, where it would be sold to another consumer, who would take it home in the car, drink it, and finally, after another car journey, toss it in the recycling bin, and the process would start over again. This is a “one-way” system, where the product manufacturer takes no responsibility for the future destination of the packaging.

Compare this odyssey with the typical life-cycle of the most popular form of reusable container in Britain, the delivered milk bottle. This bottle belongs to a dairy that in most areas collects milk from the local neighbourhood. The bottle of milk is delivered to the consumer’s door at a distance of perhaps five miles from the dairy. When empty, it is rinsed and left outside the door to be collected by the milkman, and returned five miles to the dairy; here it is washed, using about five per cent of the energy needed to make a new bottle,(22) refilled with milk and the cycle restarts. This is a “two-way” system where the producer has an interest in prolonging the life of the bottle. On a national average, a milk bottle makes about seventeen journeys in its lifetime, though in rural districts it may be as high as seventy. Some small farm dairies are still using old style milk bottles, last made in the mid-1970s.(23)

The significant comparison here is not between milk and other beverages. Before the large centralized breweries took over in Britain and introduced cans and disposable bottles, most off-premises beer was sold in returnable bottles. Nor are we simply comparing refilling with recycling. What we are looking at is two different distribution systems. The first, a long distance, centralized, “one-way” system, has the volume to warrant reprocessing (with the aid of recycling subsidies), but could not support the transport charges involved in carting whole bottles over large distances. The second “two-way” system, local and decentralized, can afford to carry bulky bottles over short distances (without subsidies), but does not have the volume to warrant an entire recycling operation. Which of these two systems is less taxing on the environment may be surmised by comparing the maps below.

comparative maps

Herein lies the crux of the dispute between reusable and recyclable packaging. Reusable containers, heavier because they are built to last, are best suited for a local distribution system, recyclable containers for a wider-based system. And yet the vast majority of the studies which compare different packaging systems take little or no account of the distances involved, and hence of the energy and resources used in transport. They may entertain as a variable the number of trips made by a container, or the degree of compaction that can be achieved for landfill purposes,(24) but one of the most critical variables — how far the material has to travel — is regularly ignored.(25)

Barriers to Trade

The reason for this omission is not hard to fathom. Any attempt to define or regulate the distance that a commodity or its packaging travelled would be an interference with free trade, and could not, in the modern scheme of things, be countenanced. Forcing (or subsidizing) every business to recycle creates a “level playing field” for any company large enough to compete on the long distance market; small “uncompetitive” businesses, unable to benefit from economies of scale, are likely to be squeezed out. Forcing every business to adopt weighty reusables, on the other hand, would give a distinct advantage to small, local and supposedly more inefficient businesses, and would be considered a form of “protectionism”.

This can readily be appreciated by the ferocity with which industry has contested attempts to protect locally-based returnable bottle systems. In the mid-1980s, for example, the Republic of Ireland put forward a national ban on cans and PET (polyethylene terephthalate) containers for alcoholic drinks, but this proposal was quickly vetoed by the EC commission and forgotten.(26) In 1988, however, another small country, Denmark, was hauled up before the European Court of Justice. The international beverage industry complained that Denmark’s 1981 law, which required all beers and soft drinks to be sold in refillable bottles, was a trade barrier. “The court supported this view, but also found that the Danish law could be justified on environmental grounds ‘as long as no alternative EC legislation exists which offers the same or a higher degree of environmental protection’ “(27)

This proviso reveals the unwillingness of legislators to recognize that the relative environmental merits of reusable and recyclable systems are dependent upon the distances involved. It is not impossible that some other country, backed up by an EC ruling, could present evidence purporting to show that over the whole of the EC a can-recycling scheme or a lightweight plastic bottle system would be environmentally more sound than a system which trundled returnable bottles back and forth over hundreds of kilometres. The Danes might retort that, whatever might be the case throughout Europe, within Denmark the returnable bottle was the most ecological. In this case, the European Court of Justice would be making a decision that had nothing whatsoever to do with the relative environmental benefits of reusable and recyclable systems — which are conditional upon distance — but was simply a blunt question of whether an international economy should have the right to enclose a local one.

A similar debate is unfolding in Germany, where the 1991 Packaging Ordinance has elaborated a system that “seems totally focused on recycling as the solution to the landfill crisis”. “Packaging must be refillable as far as is technically and economically feasible,” whereas the Ordinance “does not extend the requirement of economic feasibility to the collection and materials reprocessing of packaging”.(28) The ruling makes it compulsory for manufacturers, distributors and retailers to take back all consumer packaging and pay for its recycling or disposal — a two-way system. However, there is a let-out clause in the Ordinance which allows industry to organize an alternative system — the Deutches Duales System, or DDS — to which companies can delegate, for a fee, the responsibility for their waste. Industrial corporations have taken up this option with gusto, since it absolves them from the obligation to collect, transport, sort and reprocess their own waste, an obligation which would seriously undermine the competitiveness of long distance importers. Leading figures in the German packaging industry have accused the DDS scheme of devouring more energy in transport and collection than it saves through recycling but their comments have not diminished industry’s enthusiasm for the scheme.(29)

However, at the last minute an amendment was pushed through by Bavarian members of parliament, placing a minimum 72 per cent quota for refillable bottles. “It is thought”, writes The Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment, (alias Tetra Pak), “that the quota was introduced as a result of pressure on politicians from small brewers in Bavaria. France, in particular, and the UK, believe that the measure discriminates against imported water and beer, and want the… law notified to the EC as a result.”(30)

Once again, it is clear that the conflict between refillable and recyclable containers is, in essence, a conflict between local distribution systems and centralized international ones.

Subsidizing Supermarkets

The driving force behind the centralization of distribution in the last 30 years has been the supermarket system, and the phenomenal rise in packaging is linked to the rise of this system.

“Supermarkets could not exist without packaging,” says the Industrial Council for Packaging and the Environment (INCPEN). “The benefits and efficiencies of supermarket food retailing depend, at present, on a smooth and uninterrupted flow of produce from supplier to consumer, and with very few exceptions this is a one-way flow… Savings in the labour overhead are achieved by prepackaging at the factory instead of delivering in bulk.”(31)

The packaging industry presents this radical change as the “housewife’s” choice: “The British housewife is not compelled to shop at a self-service store… she can forswear the 32,000 self service food shops for the 75,000 counter service competitors.”(32) Apart from the fact that these are 1971 figures (in a 1990s publication), and that there are now few high-street counter-service shops and almost none offering a delivery service, INCPEN ignores another crucial factor. When consumers drifted over to the “convenience” of supermarkets in the 1960s and 1970s, they were not asked to pay directly for disposal of the inconvenient packaging waste, since it was conveniently taken away by the municipal refuse services. Had these consumers been obliged to dispose of the packaging themselves, “in their own backyard”, there is a high chance that they would have opted for a minimal packaging system with a considerable amount of returnable containers.

In effect, a long distance distribution system, based on economies of scale and minimal labour costs, took over from a more local system based on economies of energy and greater use of labour. It could do so, not because it was necessarily more efficient — the home delivery service operated by small shops was extremely efficient — but partly because a principal externality involved, the disposal of packaging waste, was paid for by taxes.

The supermarkets are fully aware that a return to refillable or returnable packaging will erode their competitive advantage: that when it comes to transporting bulky containers back and forth, the small local independent manufacturer has a distinct advantage over the centralized national producer. And they are determined to preserve their position. When Friends of the Earth asked independent drinks suppliers about reusable bottles it received replies such as the following:

“None of our take-home sales are made in refillable bottles. This is not a situation of our choice, it simply reflects the demand from buyers in the supermarket industry

“We have always found returnable bottles to be by far the most convenient and economic. Unfortunately our policy has meant that we have never been able to sell our products

through supermarkets.”

“Until supermarkets do not constitute the majority of sales, there will be no change.”(33)

Subsidizing Recycling

Although they fear a return to reuse, supermarkets are by no means averse to recycling, provided they themselves do not have to cope with the returned packaging — in other words, provided that it is a one-way flow.

However, because recycling is uneconomic and recycled materials must be sold at a loss to manufacturers, landfilled or dumped in the Third World, the recycling procedure must be subsidized — and nearly always is, either by industry itself or by government. The British Plastics Federation, for example, ploughed £200,000 into a project in Sheffield which spends an average of £150 to collect a tonne of plastic bottles which it sells for £50 to £l00.(34) A survey of 17 towns and districts in the US which operated “successful” recycling schemes showed that none of them came anywhere near to covering their costs through the sale of recuperated material, and several of them failed to sell anything at all. All of them were subsidized by local or State taxes and grants, except for one town which exacted a mandatory removal charge. No indication is given in the report as to how much of the recyclable material finally found its way into a new product, and how much was eventually incinerated, landfilled or sold abroad.(35)

In the UK, the government offers subsidies, called Recycling Credits, to those who collect recyclable materials. Recycling Credits are an intriguing form of market distortion since they are presented as being precisely the opposite. They are paid to recyclers on the assumption that recycling relieves the municipality of the burden of disposing of the material as refuse, and are supposed to reflect the value of this relief (although the current rate of about £14 per tonne is clearly inadequate). However, municipal waste collection is itself a market distortion, since it relieves manufacturers of the external costs of disposal. Recycling Credits simply confer upon recyclable materials the subsidy that is already allocated to throw-away goods — at the expense of refillable bottles, reusable bags and baskets, washable plates and anything else that is not “disposable”.

As fiscal mechanisms, Recycling Credits and similar subsidies are fundamentally flawed. Any attempt to apply them consistently to commodities or activities that reduced waste would end in absurdity. It might, it is true, be possible to subsidize refillable milk bottles. But then why not, by the same token, subsidize reusable shopping bags or china cups? And what about solid dustbins, non-disposable razors, fountain pens, metal paraffin cans, tobacco pouches and washable nappies, in fact anything that provides a durable alternative to a disposable and lightens the burden of waste upon the community? And, for that matter, what about those who choose to do without a certain commodity altogether — are they not also entitled to a subsidy?

A Pariah Commodity

The contradictions inherent in recycling subsidies bring to the surface the fundamental question that is rarely, if ever, confronted in the mountains of learned papers devoted to the subject: What, exactly, is packaging? Why is a plastic shopping bag regarded as “packaging”, while a handmade shopping basket is not? Why is a plastic cup “packaging”, but not a Wedgewood?

The present use of the word “packaging” dates from the 1930s, though it does not seem to have acquired its full meaning until the 1950s.(36) Before this century, the concept did not exist at all. Baskets, bags, sacks, pouches, tins, boxes, pots, barrels, gourds, pitchers, preserving jars, bottles and vaporizers were not forms of packaging, but tools — useful devices made with pride, bought with circumspection and guarded with care. Before the arrival of metal cans, the only throwaway products were those made of cheap readily-available biomass, which melted back into the environment when discarded.

The only definition of packaging that bears any scrutiny is that it is something disposable but persistent — a manufactured product so cheap and unloved that it is not worth the inconvenience of keeping it; but that when jettisoned, obstinately refuses to disappear. If discarded packaging — litter — blended discreetly back into the environment like beanpoles, banana-leaf plates or the falling leaves of autumn, we would not have to bury it and it would not pose such a problem. If, on the other hand, packaging were costly and crafted, we would not be at such pains to eject it from our homes. In neither case would there be a need for a special word.

Packaging is a pariah commodity no one wants to keep. It is the brainchild of an economic system that has to keep producing more and more to maintain equilibrium. Obsolescence is crucial to the survival of capitalism and packaging is the most refined form of planned obsolescence yet devised.

A Licence to Consume

It is to perpetuate the ethos of disposability that large corporations have embraced the recycling scenario with such enthusiasm. It does not matter to industry whether its raw materials are mined from the earth, stripped from forests or regurgitated at considerable expense from the waste stream. As long as there is a continual and ever-expanding throughput, the consumer is consuming and business is healthy. Recycling offers business an environmental excuse for instant obsolescence and consumers an environmental excuse for increasing their consumption of it. Listen to British Petroleum (BP) describing their can-recycling fruit machine, Crusher the Can-Eater: this “strapping six-footer with shoulders to match, combines the fun of a one-armed bandit with the serious business of recycling aluminium. Every used can he swallows sets his tumblers turning with the chance of a free drink on winning lines… His massive appetite will be satisfied only by a regular supply of used drinks cans”. Crusher, of course will not only stimulate the drinks and aluminium industries — he will bring dedicated motorized recyclers to BP patrol pumps.(37)

But the danger of singling out recycling as a sustainable strategy goes beyond providing an environmental licence for planned obsolescence. Since recycling is advocated both for recognized disposables and for items that are still regarded as durables, it threatens to blur the distinction in the public mind between the two.

The rationale behind this confusion is laid bare in an advertisement headed The Astonishing Apple Macintosh Summer Recycling Offer. “Tired of staring at the same old screen every morning… Now the message is: don’t bin your old technology… You can easily trade up to Apple and save money on the way… To complete the package, companies like Lotus, Word Perfect and Insignia are joining us with their special offers”.(38) What was known until recently as “hardware” is taking on the role of recyclable packaging for a kaleidoscope of consumable software. Computers, redundant after four or five years because their parts are withdrawn from sale, are joining the ranks of items such as disposable razors and throwaway cameras. The distinction between durable and disposable, itself a relatively young concept, is being rapidly eroded. In the future, everything will be “recyclable”.

The Wheels of Industry

The most determined attempt to promote the durable as recyclable is in the beleaguered motor-car industry. Sales have been hit by the recession, the Northern market is “mature” and a new strategy is required to boost turnover. The industry has followed the lead of BMW, which recently started advertising “the 80 per cent recyclable car”. This claim is sheer puffery; cars are, or were, 80 per cent metal and scrap-dealers have been recycling them for years.

In October 1992, BMW opened “the UK’s first car recycling plant”, and plans three in the US.(39) Germany’s environment minister, Klaus Topfer, has announced draft plans to force manufacturers to take back cars at the end of their lifespan. “In future, anyone who produces and markets vehicles should also be made responsible for their disposal.”(40) The implications of Topfer’ s proposals are disturbing. The automobile manufacturing industry, already controlled by a handful of firms, could increase its vertical control over the secondhand parts market. Some vehicle dismantlers fear that they may be put out of business. “If the motor industry got a closed shop,” says a representative of the UK Vehicle Dismantlers Association, “they could do anything. They could hold back secondhand parts, so that they sell more new parts.”(41)

Manufacturers could also dominate the secondhand car market, by encouraging “recycling” trade-ins of the kind pioneered by Apple. It is not difficult to imagine cars being deliberately designed, in the name of environmental efficiency, to dysfunction after ten, eight or even six years, so that they can be traded in at the proprietary recycling centres, melted down and reforged into new models. Thus, in a saturated market, may the wheels of industry be kept turning.

Bricks and Mortar

This contrived “demolish and recycle” mentality is likely to spread through the entire industrial fabric. The building industry, less centralized than the motor industry, has been slower to respond to the call to recycle, but it will not be for long. Recently I asked a press officer from Shell Petroleum why two smart and apparently sound petrol stations in my home town were being demolished and then rebuilt. He replied that there were structural weaknesses in the buildings. One of them was 20 years old, whereas the average life of a Shell petrol station was nearer 15. Besides, he added, a proportion of the building materials were being “recycled”.

The salvage of building materials is nothing new. Upon demolition, recuperable items such as iron girders, timber, bricks and stones have traditionally been cleaned and reused. Many of the other materials, however — such as glass, plastic, mortar, concrete, cable and felt — are unusable and fit only for hardcore or recycling.

From an environmental point of view, it is not so much the level of recycling that is critical, as the projected lifetime of the building. Shell’s unsightly high-tech edifices, costing hundreds of thousands of pounds, have a life expectancy rather less than that of many Third World buildings built out of biomass, and a fraction of that of a Victorian stone warehouse. The latest generation of multi-million pound office blocks are little better. Rob Harris of Stanhope property developers says that his company is constructing buildings in London with a lifespan of 25 years.(43) In Florida hotels are scrapped after as little as seven years. When the developers are finally challenged on the environmental effects of this short-term planning, we will doubtless start hearing about the recycling of building materials.

The Future Looms

We may also be hearing more about the recycling of clothes. Since the early days of the industrial revolution, the textile industry has been subject to gluts, and it has traditionally relied on fashion to stimulate demand. As production increases with the development of eight-metre-wide superlooms and the proliferation of factories throughout the Third World, the industry will become more reliant upon the promotion of ever shorter life-cycles for its products.

In the long run, the body-packaging industry is likely to mimic the food-packaging industry. If throwaway and recyclable tableware can be marketed as more environmentally friendly than the washable alternative, why not recyclable bodywear? So far, the industry’s attempts to market unwashable textiles such as paper dresses and underwear have not met with great public acceptance (the exceptions being disposable nappies and paper handkerchiefs). But if, in the future, the cost of a mass-produced jacket drops to little more than the cost of getting one dry-cleaned, consumer attitudes may well change. It may not be difficult, given the public appetite for recycling, for industry to convince consumers to forget laundry altogether and simply drop their dirty clothes into the textile bank, to be respun, rewoven, retailored and retailed as an impeccably hygienic and up-to-date garment.

A Culture of Durability

Such a system might sound like idle science fiction, were it not for the fact that it already exists for tableware; and that it is a challenge to conceive of a free-market strategy that would allow industry to go on indefinitely pumping out new goods with a semblance of sustainability. It is easy to see why corporate planners would be keen to move down the road of recyclability. It is harder to understand why so many greens should elevate recycling to a position where it is used to promote environmentally exhausting activity and justify the production of shoddy goods.

This is not to argue against recycling in any form. When a product comes to the end of its useful life, obviously it makes sense to reuse the materials. But this does not mean that industry should be allowed to use it as a justification for shorter and shorter life cycles. Overconsumption cannot be remedied by recycling waste.

There is, after all, the option of a culture of durability rather than of throughput. Though reusable packaging is being forced out of the market in Europe and the US, it is still the dominant system in many parts of the world. Even middle-class people “cannot afford the luxury of waste… They reuse whatever they can and are loath to discard bags, jars, tins or boxes.”(45) In India, “fast food” is sold in an ingenious system of portable stacking metal bowls. Throughout the South, secondhand cars and buses abandoned by wealthy countries are given a new lease of life, and clothes do not become rags until they are past repair. Through practices such as these, Third World and Eastern European countries produce a fraction of the waste that Northern countries do.

With the “liberation” of Eastern Europe and the spread of the “free market” under the wing of GATT, these sound systems are under threat. Some newly-industrialized countries, such as South Korea, have a waste problem that rivals the North’s. Supermarkets are proliferating in Bangkok and Bombay; throwaway plastic cups are beginning to litter Indian railway stations; and in Hungary Tetra-Pak, partly financed by the World Bank, recently opened a disposable carton factory that caused the country’s deposit bottle system to collapse in a matter of weeks.(46)

Is the rest of the world destined to go through the same cycle as the North: amassing insupportable surpluses of trash for which it has to devise ludicrous, uneconomic and environmentally dubious methods of recycling, so that transnational manufacturers and supermarkets can reinforce their enclosure of markets? It is time that the environmental movement in the North, instead of concentrating on the suspect, third-best solution of recycling, took as its model the reusable systems that are still working in other parts of the world.

Box: Durable Cars

A majority of cars on British roads are bought second-hand by private users. Yet it is companies and a rich minority preoccupied with prestige and performance who dictate the market. Secondhand buyers, more interested in reliability, have no choice other than to buy what the wealthy bought five or ten years previously, and have to battle with an increasing array of electronic gadgets and disposable "sealed unit" car parts.

Nevertheless, there has been some successful popular resistance to this trend. The Morris Minor, designed for economy and ease of repair, and discontinued over 20 years ago, is still common on the roads of Britain. Its fuel consumption of over 40 miles per gallon is above the present day average and could doubtless have been improved if the original manufacturers had continued production. Parts for Morris Minors are now available from The Durable Car Company of Sri Lanka, where they are handmade by a local workforce. The company plans to produce a new durable car and van, based on the old Morris Minor design.

Such "reusable" cars, whose repair and refurbishment over 30 years or more is labour-intensive rather than energy-intensive, are in the long run cheaper and more environmentally-friendly than their slick "recyclable" replacements. Designing cars for short life-cycles and recyclability will make consumers dependent on expensive, over-capitalized production lines.

Notes and references

  1. Alcan, Recycling Message Reaches Ends of Earth, press release, June 1992.
  2. W. Hannay and Co Ltd, TrECycling Success at British Nuclear, press release, 27 July, 1992.
  3. Dow Plastics, Test Results Dispel Myth on Stretch Film Recycling, press release, 1992.
  4. Save a Cup Recycling Company Ltd., National Recycling Scheme for Plastic Cups Announced, press release, 1992.
  5. "Paper Bedding for a Comfortable Calf", New Scientist, 30 May, 1992, p.11.
  6. Treneman, A., "Green Brigades Go Naked into Battle", The Observer, 8 March, 1992, p.54.
  7. Brissou, 1., Packaging Waste and the Environment: Economics and Policy, CSERGE, University College, London,1992, p.7.
  8. Stilwell E.J. et al., Packaging for the Environment, The American Management Association, 1992, p.89.
  9. Brissou, I., op.cit. 7, pp.65-71.
  10. "Food for Thought", The Economist, 29 Aug, 1992, pp.62-64.
  11. Friends of the Earth, Bring Back the Bring Back, FOE, London, April 1992.
  12. Brissou, I., op. cit. 7, p.40. The key word is "processing", which covers several different procedures: "closed loop recycling" where a discarded product is reprocessed into a new identical product, (eg. aluminium cans into aluminium cans); "cascade recycling" where a discarded product is reprocessed into another less crucial product (eg. car bumpers into car floor-mats); the incineration of waste to produce energy; and the composting of wastes into fertilizers.
  13. Ibid., p.61.
  14. Leonard, A., "Plastics: Trashing the Third World", Multinational Monitor, 26 June, 1992.
  15. Kirana, C., "Poverty Cleaning Up Pollution", Ecosounder, June 1992.
  16. Bell, J., "Plastics: Waste Not, Want Not", New Scientist, 1 Dec.1990; Charles, D., "Too Many Bottles Break the Bank", New Scientist, 18 April,1992; Bell, J. "Heat of the Argument", The Guardian, 2 Sept.1991.
  17. Charles, D., op.cit.16.
  18. Leydier, P., "La Longue Histoire des Vieux Papiers", L' environment, 1507, Paris 1992.
  19. British Paper and Board Industry Federation, Paper Back Campaign: Background Briefing, Swindon, 13 May, 1992.
  20. See Pietrosanta, Y., "Special Exporec", L' Environnement, 1505, Paris, 1992.
  21. Stillwell, E.J. et al., op.cit. 8, p.58.
  22. Industrial Council for Packaging and the environment (INCPEN), Packaging Saves Energy, London, 1991.
  23. Information from The National Dairy Council and British Glass.
  24. See FOE, op.cit. 11; Brissou, I., op. cit. 7.
  25. There are, of course, varying degrees of centralization and in many situations both reusable and disposable containers may exist in uneasy competition. In France, cheap table wine is produced mainly by local manufacturers, but may be distributed over a wide area, the distinctive "star" one-litre bottles being returnable to another producer anywhere in the country. The greater weight of the bottles still penalizes the centralized producer and long distance distributor, both on the longer outward journey and in the necessity to bring back more bottles to the central depot than were consumed in the immediate vicinity. The larger producers of cheap wine have therefore moved over to plastic bottles. A long distance reusable system also requires a strict standardization of bottles amongst all regions or countries participating in the scheme, something which the fashion-conscious packaging industry would rather not countenance.
  26. StilIwell, E.J. et al., op. cit. 8, p.119.
  27. Ibid. p.46.
  28. Brissou, I., op.cit. 7, pp.17-18.
  29. Marsh, D.,"The Patchwork that Has to be ironed Out", Financial Times, 28 May, 1992.
  30. The Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment, "Topfer Law Raises Concerns Over Free Trade", Euro Alert, June 1991.
  31. INCPEN, The Benefits of Packaging, London, p.3, and The Influence of the Supermarket on Food Packaging, London, pp.1 and 6.
  32. Ibid, p.2.
  33. FOE, op.cit., 11, p.4.
  34. Bell, J., op.cit. 16.
  35. Platt, B. et al. Beyond 40 Percent, Institute for Self Reliance, Island Press, Covelo, California, 1991.
  36. Oxford English Dictionary.
  37. British Petroleum, Crusher Cleans Up in Portsmouth, press release, 28 July, 1992.
  38. "The Astonishing Apple Macintosh Summer Recycling Offer", The Edge, Apple Macintosh, 1992.
  39. WARMER, "Scrap Cars -What Next?", WARMER Bulletin, May 1992, p.17.
  40. "Germany Takes Further Steps to Boost Car Recycling", The Environmental Digest, 62, Aug.1992.
  41. Telephone conversation with Derek Spaull of the UK Vehicle Dismantlers Association, October 1992.
  42. The Morris Minor Centre, Avon House, Lower Bristol Road, Bath, Avon.
  43. Douthwaite, R., The Growth Illusion, Green Books, Bideford, Devon,1992, p.299.
  44. "Food for Thought", op. cit.10.
  45. Kurukulasuriya, L., "Talking Garbage", New Internationalist, April 1992.
  46. Rabb, M., "Tetra Pak's Move to Modernise Packaging in Hungary Sparks Environmental Debate", East West Environment 1,1, June 1992; telephone conversation with Ilana Cravitz of FOE, The Netherlands.

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