We now live in times where the stakes against overlooking climate change as a threat have become very high. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals include ‘Responsible Consumption and Production’ as an objective which the international community is being urged to work towards. An understanding of the outcomes that current patterns of consumption have delivered in form of mounds of non-decomposable waste is causing a change in the value system. 

Environmentalists, activists and organisations have been crusading for action to be taken towards management of by-product that is generated due to current consumption practices. Through social media campaigns, info graphics and awareness drives, consumers are being urged to become conscious and vigilant about the aftermath of their choices. World over individuals are demanding that governments and corporations become mindful of the impact of their actions on the environment at large. The week-long demonstrations in the streets of five cities in the United Kingdom demanding that the government take action to halt biodiversity loss and reduce greenhouse gases to zero by the year 2025 are a testimony to this fact. 

The positive outcomes of such demands for saving the environment include a decisive shift in consumption, and by association, in production towards commodities that promise to ease the burden of non-decomposable waste being generated. Companies have actively started investing in products that keep this preference in mind and have begun to align themselves with the objective of ‘going green’. 

The idea of recycling is being ubiquitously associated with consumption in order to enable and promote a sustainable lifestyle by corporations. This has opened avenues for products that are made from recycled materials, which aim to replace everyday items. Recycled material is being used to make apparels, bags, cutlery, and other everyday items. Through targeted advertisements, these products reach the environmentally conscious masses. While buying them may impart a feeling of having done one’s bit for saving the environment, the idea that recycling is the primary solution to the problems that consumption has created warrants further inspection.

As a process, recycling begins when waste is correctly sorted at the point of collection and then, the material which can be recycled goes to facilities which treat it further. For the process to work, it is fundamentally essential that individuals have a clear idea of what is recyclable and what isn’t. As expressed in this article by The Guardian, the process of recycling has many short comings on this front. The absence of a clearly defined system that enables individuals to identify products that are recyclable and those that aren’t puts pressure on recycling plants to sort out waste further at their end and they face the risk of their machinery breaking down at multiple points in the process. Moreover, it is not possible to completely recycle some forms of plastic which claim to be of the recyclable kind. These shortcomings prove that the process is not as efficient as it is made out to be and thus, may not be the ultimate saviour that we can look up to. 

A sustainable recycling system will require institutional and policy changes that align with the interests of consumers and producers alike, possibly making it a costly affair. While a technological solution to these issues may lie around the corner, a further lacunae prevents it from being the first best solution – recycling still promotes consumption.

Recycling as an idea is being capitalised upon by corporations to continually promote consumption. Emphasis on the cyclic nature of the product’s lifecycle enables individuals to shift focus from the guilt of having consumed a potentially waste-generating object to the satisfaction of having made an environmentally conscious decision. The virtues of having longer durability and being eco-friendly in nature normalise the consumption of recycled products. This is done without the realization of the fact that the process of recycling itself uses resources which we may run out of over time. 

Stripped of its moral cocoon, selling recycled products can be looked at as a system in which, indirectly, consumption begets consumption. It requires individuals to consume in the first place and then the waste generated to be modified for further consumption, without paying heed to the fact that the process is sustainable only to a limit.

The first Limits to Growth report by Club of Rome submitted in 1972 looked at the effects of an exponential population as well as economic growth on finite resources. Despite its methodological shortcomings, the report had highlighted an important aspect – increase in consumption will lead to overshooting the carrying capacity of resources. 

Thus, if we continue to consume at the current rates, shifting to recyclable products will only shift the burden of production to a different set of resources. Beyond a threshold, this will prove to be unsustainable for the environment. 

A case in point is the increase in pressure on water for producing almonds that are now in greater demand as veganism rises.

While recycling has its set of merits, the intensive limelight that it receives as a result of being an appendage to consumption takes the agency away from two important cogs in the waste management wheel – reduce and reuse. In order to ensure that we consume responsibly, we must first question whether we need to consume a product at all. If we absolutely must consume it, we must then ask if it can be substituted for using what we already have. The choice of using a recycled product must follow if the answer to this question is negative. By being mindful of what we don’t need to consume and optimally utilising what we have, we can positively reduce the pressure on resources instead of merely shifting it overtime. 

In a world that pushes us to consume by telling us what we need, choosing not to do so is an act of rebellion. So the next time you buy a drink, don’t congratulate yourself for having used a metal straw. Instead, just drink from the glass.   

Pooja Dewoolkar

Pooja Dewoolkar works in the Conservation Behaviour Department at the Wildlife Conservation Trust, Mumbai.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Tilak Chronicle and TTC Media Pvt Ltd.

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