The Truth About Recycling and Social Inequality

The Truth About Recycling and Social Inequality

Those of you who are knowledgeable in areas of sustainability, waste management or circular economy may be familiar with ideas of ‘waste hierarchy’ and the limitations of mainstream recycling.

But have you ever questioned how recycling came to be the top dog in environmental waste management? Have you ever considered its social context and implications as well as those on our planet?

Well, welcome to the truth about recycling and social inequality.

Recycling and Social Inequality


The concept of recycling varies in representation, practice and morality across different historical and cultural contexts. With such variation comes risk of social inequality, through unequal opportunities, rewards, punishments and distribution of wealth and resources.

 Recycling has no defined form or motivation, its meaning is shaped by societies on an institutional and individual level – allowing its promised environmental benefits to become tangled in complicated webs of social inequality.

Considering this in relation to recycling, this post will explore some of the ways in which recycling has been framed across the globe.

I’ll be digging deep into the different ways this has affected vulnerable populations, and problematising the idea of recycling as an ultimate, universal solution to environmental issues.

 In acknowledging the diversity of interpretations and experiences of recycling, I hope here to dismiss ideas of recycling as being innately ‘good’ while avoiding its dismissal as objectively ‘bad’.

At the same time, I hope to encourage you to think deeply about ‘recycling’ and the seemingly innocent ideas we have of it.

Through recognising limitations, we allow ourselves the chance to develop and build more suitable alternatives.


The Diversity in Meaning and Experience of Recycling


I thought I’d begin with a little comparative case study, to highlight how recycling is not a universal concept with one singular meaning.

The power dynamics of representation are clear in moral discourses around recycling, which vary significantly by country.

 For example, where Swedish discourse on recycling focuses on protecting and managing nature, the UK is more likely to target wastefulness. This comparison shows how market involvement influences social norms, as they interact with political and moral agendas.

In Sweden, not-for-profit companies process municipal solid waste, but producers maintain ownership, meaning it cannot be sold on and the market plays a minor part in the process.

Environmental concerns are consistently reiterated throughout society, reaching consumers across demographics and from an early age, by campaigning messages of collective effort and duty to protect future generations.

Recycling goes largely uncriticised, and most individuals engage in their responsibility for sorting waste and bringing it to collection points.

Infrastructure provides for recycling policy and collection points are well distributed and (generally) accessible.

Non-compliant citizens often face social shaming, labelled as morally irresponsible individuals undermining collective efforts towards sustainability.

Social shaming contributes to the adoption of ideological values, constructing recycling as a way of receiving approval from peers.

Though this could be seen as positive reinforcement of social norms, it can have negative impacts on certain social groups such as those lacking accessibility to collection points or immigrants unfamiliar with the Swedish system.

 In the UK, the State plays a much smaller role in waste management, and so responsibility is delegated to privatised companies who can make profit from it.

Recycling is promoted as saving money by reducing landfill costs, a message evident in campaigns which place responsibility for national economic savings on individual consumers pressured with threats of austerity and cuts to public services.

Recycling faces more resistance in the UK than in Sweden, which the State manages by deploying policies of punishment and reward, which further entrench economic focus by encouraging consumers to make financially rational cost-benefit decisions.

So, the UK’s prioritises efficient reduction of waste, characterised by distrust in the State and a begrudged sense of obligation, over environmental stewardship.

The variation between Sweden and the UK shows just one example of the diversity in global perceptions of recycling and how messages and responsibilities are interpreted in citizen’s daily lives.

These differences mean social groups experience unequal levels of autonomy, security (trust in the State) and comfort (in solidarity).

Whose Voice Is Heard?


Prioritising efficiency is not new to the UK, with discussions around waste emerging during the 1970s as growth and consumption became associated with fears of scarcity, economic decline and damage to national reputation of cleanliness and order.

This fear gave environmentalist movements their first foothold in public representation, and as waste became associated with inefficiency, aesthetic disaster and contamination, organisations such as Friends of the Earth gained support in their campaigns.

While it should be positive that environmental movements gained traction, dominant concerns were focused on waste and environmentalism came to be associated with this singular cause.

This meant that other efforts of environmentalism, such as those promoting conservation or biodiversity protection, were undermined by political promotion of waste concerns.

Institutions essentially swallowed up environmentalist causes and spat them back out in ways which served their agenda of efficiency and economic gain.

Similar cases are evident across the world. For example, in 1980s USA, media hype described landfill sites as nearing capacity.

This political representation of a ‘waste crisis’ was welcomed by environmentalists who were well aware of the ecological consequences of landfill, and the newfound alliance between them and their traditional opponents in the political sector was seen by the public as a positive force to get on board with.

 Recycling programmes were developed, but landfill expansion was justified as a temporary solution. Corporations heavily supported this expansion, which allowed them to continue their disposal practices while placing the cost on the State and its taxpayers.

Similarly, wealthy corporations and trade associations have long supported curb-side recycling in the USA, placing responsibility for waste on consumers while encouraging continued consumption.

Yet another example is the founding of Keep America Beautiful by the American Beverage Association, which allowed industries to escape the threat of tightened legislation by presenting themselves as complying with environmental initiatives and maintaining control through self-regulation.

This last example shows clearly how greenwashing (view my separate post on greenwashing here!) has allowed the idea of recycling to be taken from environmentalist concern and transformed into a ‘get out of jail free’ card for corporate and political powers – enabling them to gain and maintain profits at the expense of the initial social and environmental cause for concern.

However, greenwashing comes with risk as exposure could lead to reputational loss or legal retribution. As awareness grows, corporations are beginning to realise the need to practice as they preach and engage in genuine sustainability.

Whose Voice Isn’t Heard? The Colonialism of Recycling


Yup, you guessed it – I’m bringing colonialism into the discussion. I know, I know. I do talk a lot about colonialism in reference to several social and environmental issues, but bare with me because I truly do believe this is relevant and important in revealing the truth about recycling and social inequality.

The UK’s discourse on waste and efficiency shows the historic context of waste management. Where waste has been viewed as the demonic enemy of capitalism, it has been removed from our society or forcibly reshaped to create more value.

Gidwani and Reddy (2011) suggest that this rationale reflects colonial history and the justification by powerful nations for taking over management of unproductive or ‘wasteful’ land and populations.

Perceptions of value as good and waste as bad have legitimised violent accumulation of land. These ideological assumptions have continued in colonised countries throughout their journey to independence, with intervention being viewed necessary in waste management.

 This discourse increases inequality the income of informal waste-pickers, who are exploited to return value from otherwise unproductive materials, are decreased by regulation of land and the hours its free to access.

Informal waste economies in a number of vulnerable nations share this contingency with colonialism, as they are generally maintained due to dependence on income from access to international markets.

Dependency on financial inclusion to global markets means that the often desperate survival needs of unemployed citizens are exploited through cheap labour while the alternative approaches of empowering policy, State-subsidised waste management or supportive upskilling for development of alternative livelihoods go unconsidered.

This unequal experience of recycling frames the hierarchal ordering of communities and individuals.

Rural communities tend to suffer more than urban counterparts, as mounds of waste are collected outside major cities.

For example, plastic waste is distributed to small towns outside Malaysia’s capital city, where illegal ‘recycling’ plants frequently dump or burn plastic causing severe air pollution which particularly affects children and elderly people and has correlated with a fourfold increase in local cases of cancers (For further detail on this case study, check out this Netflix episode).

In several countries, informal economies have grown as those most vulnerable, often women and children, supplement their income by picking through unsorted waste for tradable items including plastic bottles or aluminium cans.

This work is time consuming, involves exposure to harmful items like broken glass or needles, and provides a very low income which entraps workers in poverty and requires children to drop out of school and engage in child labour.

Informal waste pickers experience stigmatisation and are easily exploited by formal and informal intermediaries who dilute the value of collected items and sometimes charge waste pickers for entry to dumping grounds.

Marginalisation and lack of regulated formalisation exclude waste pickers from accessing formal finance mechanisms. This creates vicious cycles of borrowing, debt, dependency on loans and ongoing poverty.

National governments stand to gain from informal recycling workers, as they provide labour at minimal costs while supporting local manufacturing and international trade of recycled materials as well as reducing the expenses of landfilling, processing or formalising waste management. Intermediaries gain disproportionate power as they assist in collection, cleaning, and distribution of recyclables back into industry.

Their role in recycling logistics further contributes to national economies, but undermines unskilled waste pickers by devaluing their livelihood as these middle-men take a substantial percentage of profits while having the power to set prices for collected items and the ability to access transport, storage and territory.

Contaminated or mixed waste is commonly exported by wealthy nations to countries across Africa and South East Asia. In 2019, the USA exported 1.5billion pounds of plastic, while the UK’s National Audit Office claimed that over half of the UK’s supposedly recycled waste is exported.

Exported waste often goes on to be landfilled or incinerated despite being recorded by its country of origin as recycled.

Countries receiving this waste are generally ill-equipped to manage such extreme volumes, with insufficient infrastructure and formalisation leading to waste building up in fields and waterways where it can easily contaminate food and water supplies. 

In countries experiencing rapid economic growth, such as Brazil or India, increasing urbanisation and consumption have increased locally produced waste in addition to that being imported, but infrastructural development has not kept up with growing populations or illegal settlements and shanty towns.

Plastic waste breaks down into microplastics which are easily contaminated by bacteria such as E. Coli and can enter human food chains. The release of hazardous chemicals into the air due to uncontrolled incineration have been shown to cause cancers, fatigue, asthma, vomiting and problems with fertility and brain development.

As problems have elevated, China have banned import of difficult to recycle waste as of January 2018. Other countries have attempted to reject foreign waste, only to have it gather in overwhelming volume as accountability is refused.

Although mountains of waste are piling up, these practices have been occurring for decades, reflecting colonial histories as dominant countries are able to live peacefully while their hidden problems cause drastic issues elsewhere.

Despite some tightened regulation, national governments have not implemented sufficient legislation against the import of foreign waste because they are threatened by the resulting loss of income when reducing their involvement in global waste markets.

Where one nation is left dependent on another, the opportunities and resources of the former are dictated by the latter.

Through these international economic dependencies, ‘recycling’ as we know it is a severely unequal experience.

In some cases, there are attempts to regulate these adverse constructions. Legislation states that Europe’s electronic waste must be recycled within the EU, however an illicit market for broken electronic goods has been uncovered in countries such as Nigeria and Ghana.

Electronic goods disposed of at European recycling facilities are regularly reported to be fixed to working condition and shipped to these countries, represented as benign donations to the needy.

Investigation by the Basel Action Network tracked over three hundred electronic items, broken beyond repair, making this journey. Electronic waste is then crudely recycled for its valuable materials through inefficient methods which expose local populations, water, aquatic life and food chains to pollution, dangerous glass and chemicals.

This causes harm to vulnerable communities who suffer such dangerous conditions, with children and the elderly being particularly at risk, while others gain illegal profits.

As one group benefits, gaining capital and opportunity, another is restricted by poor health and lack of autonomy over their environment. This is stark evidence of social inequality entrenched through recycling practice.

Progressive legislation is gradually being formed, but not without its battles. The UN backed legislation, the Basel Amendment, was based on discussion between 187 countries who almost unanimously (with one notable exception being USA) sought to limit exportation of plastic waste.

This legislation was due to be implemented in 2021 but hope for its success could be limited, with plans to expand the plastics industry being continuously announced.

The unprecedented circumstances of the Coronavirus pandemic could constrain or refocus priorities on either side. Lobbying has delayed the EU’s upcoming ban on single-use plastics, while alliances such as the Plastics Industry Association in the USA have made claims plastics are necessary to disperse pharmaceuticals and reduce disease transaction.

Earlier this year, several major corporations such as Evian and Coca-Cola pledged to increase their use of recycled plastics but, as the price of oil has declined drastically in the wake of Coronavirus, producers could be tempted to revert to primary plastics which are now several times cheaper than the recycled alternative.

Again, this shows corporate and political agendas dominating the needs of the vulnerable communities (and of course, our dear planet!) most affected by plastic waste – highlighting the social inequality of current recycling trends.

As backlash against waste exportation has developed, demand for recycling facilities is re-localised, but these industries have lacked support during decades of outsourcing and are now severely underdeveloped and underfunded.

Local authorities often have lengthy contracts in place which means change is likely to take a long time but, without increasing facilities, awareness and infrastructure, unregulated outsourcing remains a problem.

Whose Voice Isn’t Heard? The Classism of Recycling


The renewed necessity for local recycling  has been promoted as a solution to decline in quality working class employment opportunities. Providing new livelihood opportunities should decrease social inequality by raising incomes and living standards.

However, these industries face expensive labour, fluctuating needs as input and output are difficult to predict, low profitability, and delayed opportunities for outsourcing as legislation increases on where waste must be processed.

For these reasons, recycling industries often rely on temporary workers, allowing companies to have flexibility in recruitment, termination, scheduling and role designation.

Meanwhile, the worker agency absorbs accountability and expensive liability insurance.

 Recycling work is taxing and dangerous – involving heavy machinery, long hours, low income and poor hygiene – which when combined with lack of legal protection or contractual certainty in temporary work ensnares employees in labour characterised by uncertainty, health risks, minimal pay and lack of development opportunities.

Recycling companies have been found to regularly employ those who are most desperate for some form of employment. 

These workers often lack the skills and education to access better opportunities, suffer from addiction or have reputations as ex-convicts. High turnover rates give little incentive for employers to provide training or support which means employees have little chance of breaking from a cycle of low-skilled temporary work.

This highlights the unequal experience lived by certain groups at the hands of an industry represented as providing social benefits through meaningful blue-collar employment.

Social Inequality in Recycling Responsibilities


Capitalist markets gain from externalising labour at the end of product lifecycle, placing responsibility on consumers as an unpaid workforce.

This work involves tasks such as ensuring waste is kept in the right bins and prepared to reduce contamination or delivering to specified collection points.

Through recycling, materials are produced which become feedstock for further industrial use and a market has opened for industry to capture additional value through collection, process and delivery services.

This produces social inequality, as production work is valued to a greater extent than post-consumption work, and the profits of recycling are alienated from those consumers who perform an integral part of the process.

Recycling knowledge, attitude and practices have been found to vary by demographic factors such as age, education level, gender or profession.

This means that certain social groups are more affected by the devaluation of recycling work than others. For example, studies have suggested that women are more likely to recycle which both evidences and maintains traditional gender roles of women performing domestic tasks for which they are an unpaid labour force.

Those from lower socio-economic backgrounds have been found more likely to perceive recycling as inconvenient, indicating that these tasks may place a greater burden on certain groups.

McCarty and Shrum (2001) found that participation levels in recycling were more influenced by perceived convenience than by environmental importance, particularly for people with a more individualistic mindset and lower autonomy.

It could be argued that this is a class issue, given that those of lower socio-economic status may have to be more individualistic in managing their lives, and likely feel a lesser sense of autonomy due to constraints on opportunities and resources such as spare time, transport, storage space or education.

These issues clearly suggest that in constructing recycling as consumer responsibility, inequalities are created between social groups and on a broader scale between the unpaid labour of the public and contradicting profit by industries.

Looking Forwards?


Survey studies have found that people generally approve of solid waste separation for recycling, but often have limited knowledge of how it works.

Clear explanation of recycling practices is crucial, as inefficient sorting of waste compromises the quality of recycled material. While some mistakes are easily fixed, certain items such as particularly dirty, sanitary or medical waste can contaminate full loads of material.

The term ‘wishcycling’ refers to the disposal of unrecyclable items by consumers because they hope or naively believe it has a chance of being recycled.

This shows how representations of recycling have allowed simplistic assumptions, which construct a generalised interpretation of waste-management practicable by consumers, to be adopted while ignoring the true complexity.

This simplified notion of recycling contributes to significant environmental trade-offs being made.

Despite representations of environmental benefits of recycling, such as reduced green-house gas emissions, costs of landfill and lower energy usage needed to make recycled products, it both relies on and contributes to further production and consumption.

 Too often, recycling is seen as an unquestionably environmentally friendly practice.

In fact, recycling can still require a lot of energy and blending with additional virgin materials. Disposal is effectively commodified, as recycled materials are sought by producers hoping to lower production costs and brighten the reputation of disposable goods.

This endorses excessive consumption and waste while alternatives such as reuse or designing products for durability are undermined. These alternatives would address waste problems from the source rather than merely hiding the issue.

Reusable products place responsibility and innovation costs on producers, as opposed to cheapening production and diverting responsibility to consumers. If products are made to last longer, corporations lose custom as people have less need to buy new or replacement items.

New businesses are finding different ways to capture value, such as offering repair or refurbishment services.

Researchers have disputed the effectiveness of recycling on resource conservation, pollution reduction or energy efficiency. Disposable items are often made of several components which are difficult to sort and process during recycling, for example bottles contain different forms of plastic in their lid, labels and bodies which cannot be recycled in the same way.

 Recycling often weakens material quality as hybrids are processed together and lose their strength and functionality.

For example, steel from cars is melted in its entirety, including valuable resources such as copper and manganese, resulting in weak and poorly functioning steel while rare metals are lost.

 These processes are referred to as ‘downcycling’ and can only occur so many times before the material is landfilled or incinerated later.

In this post, I hope to have shown some truth about the social inequality of recycling by highlighting the diversity of its meanings and experiences.

It taking this diversity into account, dynamic potential can be explored, and previous limitations can be exposed. Objectively supporting or criticising recycling as a simplistic solution to the major task of saving the planet obscures the alternative options.

 Dominant representations start and end with manageable, defined products, displacing attention from industrial waste to put more responsibility on the shoulders of consumers.

In fact, only a small percentage of municipal waste comes from households, and it is estimated that there is 70 times as much industrial waste as there is municipal.

Some initiatives are in place to recycle industrial waste, for example the membrane filtration, chlorine conversion and brackish salt removal which brings wastewater back to standard for industrial reuse. Progressive recycling companies offer commercial services such as transforming used cooking oil into biofuel.

These practices are rarely represented in public discussion, making it harder for them to be adopted and reinforcing an unchanging, unquestioned idea of recycling.

Simplified representations of recycling focus public attention on the most visible waste problems, which governments and corporations claim to be competently managing.

As concerns over single-use plastics have come to the forefront, most consumers remain unaware of the plastic concealed within their clothing, which contributes to microplastic pollution endangering the biodiversity of the oceans.

Innovative efforts are targeting these issues – for example, Worn Again have developed technology which separates blended textiles into pure recyclables and Evrnu have created a material designed to be compatible with breakdown and respinning into yarn.

However, these companies remain in the minority and are hardly household names. This shows how representations of recycling, which obscure its complexity and potential development, allow recycling which is truer to environmental values to go unappreciated.

These progressive initiatives seek to upcycle, stopping environmental harm rather than reducing or delaying it. Focusing on waste management places blame in the design stage of production.

They show how used products can be utilised, allowing waste to become useful rather than something we present as shameful. By placing such focus on recycling, the important differences between downcycling and upcycling are under communicated while options which reconceptualise used materials as a resource in themselves are undermined.

Lack of recognition correlates with lack of investment, making it difficult to scale new technology and infrastructure required to realise substantial environmental benefits. In this way, dominant interpretations of recycling can hinder the very environmental benefits they aspire to provide.

In conclusion, recycling incurs different meanings and implications depending on location, historic context and social situation. Considering the diversity of recycling experience allows us to perceive it as a subjective system, which in turn allows us to critique the inequality it contributes towards.

The broader implications of this conclusion is that solutions to environmental crises should not be debated using a definitive ‘for’ vs ‘against’ formula, and instead should be considered with contextual perspective which does not define proposed initiatives as finite or universal, but rather as idealised constructs with no set boundaries.

Taking such a perspective enables flexibility while acknowledging the diverse experiences of both people and planet, allowing maladaptive discourse to be questioned and problematised, while supporting progressive development rather than reverting to outright dismissal.

Has this post changed the way you think about recycling? Let me know in the comments below!


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