Growing up in the ‘90s, when television commercials were still prominent every 15 minutes for an hour-long TV show, you may have stumbled across the government’s initiatives to encourage recycling with a jingle that would forever be seared into our heads: “Recycle, that’s what we do! Recycle, tell your mother too!”
Or the advertisement of a little girl pirouetting down the pathway towards three recycling bins, with a badly CGI-ed stack of newspapers spinning atop her finger (which would land perfectly in a neat pile on the fingertip again every time she spun them into the air), berating herself for chucking them mistakenly in the brown bin, instead of the blue bin.
For the longest time, that’s as easy as recycling comes for the mass majority. Decades later, as the waste piles up and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, we begin to learn that there is more to the science of recycling than meets the eye.
The World Bank has reported: “Population increase may be part of the problem, but it’s levels of consumption within a handful of developed nations, and their gross mismanagement of waste, that have led to this environmental catastrophe.”
In a news reporting by The Star in January 2019, Prof Dr Maketab Mohamed – a former Environmental Control Officer in the Department of Environment, who is currently a mentor for the Ecotourism and Conservation Society Malaysia (Ecomy) – has also commented: “Environmental education needs to be fully implemented in our school system and not the half-baked, touch and go, band-aid version they have now.”
These abovementioned “gross mismanagement of waste” and “half-baked, touch and go, band-aid version” of environmental education we have settled with for so long has led to the act of what is called “wish-cycling”, which the Washington State Department of Ecology defines as “items in our recycle bin that we’re unsure are accepted in our local recycling program. Then we just kind of hope that somehow they will be recycled.”
That’s right, folks. Other than dealing with a percentage of the public that doesn’t practise sorting their rubbish before discarding them, and those who are doing the pointless barest minimum of throwing their rubbish in the wrong bins… as it turns out, it’s not as simple as chucking the “right garbage” into the “right bins”.
Based on The Guardian’s 2019 report, recyclable items have to be clean and cleaned; plastic containers with food residue, or cardboard boxes stained with oil leakage are already considered junk with a one-way ticket to landfills and incineration.
This is because “when tainted or hard-to-recycle items enter the material stream at a processing facility, they may contaminate the other recyclables, rendering the entire batch useless,” as Miller Recycling Corporation puts it. “They can also damage processing equipment, like when plastic bags end up tangled in sorting screens and conveyor belts.”
“Not all plastic waste will be recycled despite recyclability claims. Globally, only 9% of plastic waste produced has actually been recycled, with 12% incinerated and the remaining 79% ends up in landfills or the natural environment,” Greenpeace Malaysia Campaigner Heng Kiah Chun says. “Contaminated single-use plastics and packaging, such as sachets, are not seen as profitable by recycling factories to be recycled.”
This definitely sheds renewed light on your Grabfood order, doesn’t it? You know, the one that doesn’t come with plastic cutleries, but in a plastic container and a styrofoam cup double-wrapped with plastic cling wrap, handed to you in a plastic bag?
Miller Recycling has suggested ways to sidestep wish-cycling: from using reusable bags, while collecting plastic bags to be returned to the grocery store for proper recycling; to buying food in bulk instead of single servings, and reducing use of disposable wares.
Meanwhile, Heng notes that all this goes beyond the individuals to the head of the food chain up top: “While we need a sustained drive in the reduction of non-essential plastic, by way of developing sustainable alternatives, or switching to reuse solutions wherever possible, governments and companies need to step up by setting clear reduction targets for non-essential plastics, and invest in developing alternatives.”
This article was first published in the August Man Malaysia April 2020 issue