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An insight into our deceitful past:

Back in school there were discussions about global warming but still it wasn’t something that was being focused on or talked about. Most of the discussions when it comes to the environment were about recycling and how it is the only option to save the world from plastic pollution. 

Who remembers Recycle Rex?

The weird colourful dinosaurs who were introduced to us in the first grade. Yes, the same ones who were excited to play at some park, but could not because the park was full of trash – which they were made to realise was their own fault! 

Then they collected and took all that garbage to this magical factory and discovered the miracle of recycling. There was a big machine in which you could put all your trash and it would magically turn into something brand new, and as a kid that was pretty much my understanding towards recycling. The sad truth is, a lot of adults until now assume that that is how recycling facilities roughly work. 

We put away our used plastic, aluminium and paper products in a blue bin and then it is taken to a magical factory somewhere which converts our old trash into brand new products. But, it may be appalling for you to learn that this is not how recycling works in real life. In reality, recycling is actually a massive fraudulent project of inefficiency and geopolitical turmoil which exploits under-developed countries. 

So the one thing that was right about those dinosaur videos was the involvement of factories but not every step of the recycling process takes place in the same factory or even the same country. After you dump your trash, before anyone can do anything with it, it needs to be segregated and sorted. This is done because most of us have no clue as to what it is that we are doing when we recycle. We recycle relying on what we half remember from school or some video that we watched and those in the know refer to this phenomenon as wish-cycling, which is when people ignorantly assume that any and everything is recyclable for some reason. It is estimated that as much as 50% of what we recycle is untreatable trash anyway because of our incompetency. 

Lack of resources:

A local recycling plant in your city is usually run by the government and they employ people whose job is to thoroughly go through all the trash and segregate the legitimately recyclable material from the valueless trash and since these people are generally uneducated low paid employees, the sorting is not very efficient. Garbage sorting machines are available but they are usually very expensive. Government is obviously not into the product manufacturing business so after all the good trash is sorted from the bad, all the reusable material is mustered and sold off to factories that actually produce products. 

Environmental violence by the West:

As you know such factories are not present in the West but are majorly present in Asia, so for decades all this waste material has been exported to countries like China and India on the assumption that the factories there will be able to do something useful with this waste. This was a dangerous mistake because as it turns out, you cannot make anything useful out of store flyers smeared with ketchup or a half empty can of candies. In most cases, it is simpler, cheaper and faster for factories to make new objects from scratch rather than going through all the time and hassle of reprocessing these low-grade dirty materials. So eventually, a lot of these Asian countries resort to burning these so-called recyclables. According to the Journal Science Advances, out of all the plastic manufacturers since the 1950’s, only 9% was used to make something new after it was thrown away.

Realisations & Retaliation:

Over the course of decades, many Asian countries started feeling that they were getting the raw end of this particular deal. People in the West get to feel righteous about saving the world thinking everything is getting recycled while Asians are left with the huge pile of garbage to find anything that could be useful in producing more products for the West. In recent years, Asian countries have become more picky about what kind of trash they are willing to buy from Western countries. For instance, China introduced a policy in 2017 known as the National Sword Initiative, that more or less vastly reduced their imports of garbage from the West. Since China is the world’s biggest producer, this did extensive damage to the recycling industry in the West. 

The immediate solution was to shift the sales to other Asian countries but soon they followed China’s footsteps and began to close doors to all Western garbage exporters.

Canada’s not-so-righteous case study:

Canada is one of the worst garbage producing nations on earth per capita. In 2013, a study published by The Conference Board of Canada claimed that the average Canadian produces 2 kilograms of garbage a day. In addition to China, Canada has shipped a lot of its so-called recyclables to the Philippines over the years but the Philippines government would not allow Canada to make their country a personal garbage dumping yard as they have been demagoguing since a while about a particular shipment they received from Canada that was supposed to be recyclable items but was actually mostly adult diapers and banana peels. This is a symptom of a huge problem with the Western recycling system which is the high degree of contamination, not just in terms of how dirty everything is but how much legit trash makes it through the not so sophisticated sorting system.

The Philippines government has been demanding for Canada to take back all the garbage with all of the trademark rhetorical restraint. The president recalled all the Filipino diplomats back from Canada and even threatened war. Canada had to agree to take this particular garbage shipment back at which point the cargo had to be reclassified from useful Canadian recyclables to dangerous foreign trash – which was then burned when it got exported back to Canada. This whole situation is an illustration of a hypocritical mess caused when the Asian countries finally took a stand against the unfair practices by the West. 

Descent of a crumbling system:

Western system of recycling is starting to fall apart faster than a cardboard pizza box, which we’re ironically not allowed to recycle. Sorting the recyclables cost the cities a fortune and increasingly there are less means for the government to recoup the costs. Also, getting rid of this trash is getting more and more difficult as we all know from studying supply and demand that when you cannot sell something, the value inevitably declines and that’s what’s currently happening. 

The current global scenario:

Market value for second-hand paper, plastic and aluminium is hitting record lows making it very expensive for the governments. Things have gotten so bad that some cities in North America are cancelling their recycling programs altogether and some are even cutting pro-recycling propagandas from the school curriculum.

We can all agree that recycling is the weakest link of the three R’s which also include reusing and reducing. As kids we learnt that the leading threat to the environment was garbage and pollution unlike today it is all about climate change and global warming. Not to downplay the importance of climate change because it is such a big complicated global catastrophe that it is very easy to get intimidated by and forget about the Canada-Philippines garbage war of 2019.

Hopefully this illustrates the matter of what we are going to do with all this garbage remains a pretty big environmental issue as well. Imagine that even if we are able to solve the global warming crisis, I believe no one would want to live on a planet that is full of garbage. But planned action towards garbage management can be immediate if people follow reducing and reusing. 

Once and for all: the way ahead

This crippling issue of plastic waste and the various environmental and health hazards that it can potentially pose needs a quick and effective solution. The first step to be taken is to make such materials out of garbage that cannot again be discarded as waste instantly. Secondly, we have to find an alternative to single-use plastic that is compostable and thus the chance of piling up increasing amounts of waste can be reduced. 

The collective responsibility lies with all of us, and the fortunate times that we are living in has made it possible for us to not only come up with the solutions, but also put them to practice in a sustainable and long lasting usage.

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