Global Recycling Collapse

It's quite incredible that the recycling industry seems to have collapsed.

A story on the UK TV news brought the matter to my attention with a company in the North East of the country having to rent vast warehouse space to store the unused and unwanted paper & cardboard they collected for recycling.

I then stumbled across another story in The Guardian saying pretty much the same thing but half a world away.

Putting all the pieces together, this is the scenario:

  1. The global financial crisis causes a collapse in banks, industrial sectors and businesses.
  2. Workers at all levels are made unemployed, job opportunities are scarce and consumer confidence plummets.
  3. Having no jobs, no money and no confidence consumer spending falls dramatically.
  4. The products that consumers once hungered for are not being sold. With no demand, production stops.
  5. Without production of consumer goods, recycled materials are no longer need for the products and the packaging.
  6. The bottom falls out of the recycling market

China, the 21st century's "workshop of the world", has been able to produce cheap goods for western consumers and the need for raw materials in the manufacture of these products created a huge market for recyclables. China was apparently the world's largest importer of waste materials and the UK sent a third of its recyclable waste there.

Plummeting consumption and reduced demand has forced many companies in China out of business and thus the market for recyclable materials has dried up with cost per tonne for waste also dropping.

So China, without a market for consumers, is no longer a market for our waste and hence we're sitting on some of it. Who'd have thought that it would be naked consumerism behind the drive for recycling? It's quite ironic really.

What's also incredible is that even this green industry, recycling, doesn't appear to be sustainable. It appears that there needs to be a serious rethink of the whole chain.

  1. Firstly, if there is going to be a market for recyclable waste, it needs to be closer to home.
  2. Secondly, there should be a drive to use more recyclable material in current production even at reduced levels.
  3. Most importantly, we need to have less material finding its way into the system in the first place.

OK, the list is in the correct order in context of the subject, but invert it and we get REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE. Perfect.

Only a reduction and sustained drop in consumption of materials will prevent this happening again. Let's start with trying to educate people who buy a plastic bottle of drink every day that it's a complete waste!


I had a conversation about recycling over lunch today and I didn't even bring it just when people are really jumping on the bandwagon, it seems like we have to grab the steam engine instead? It will be troublesome advocating environmentalist philosophies when the strategy waters become very muddied....