‘Recycling’ today: greenwashing for a broken, ecocidal system

Why does our society seem so incapable of dealing with the rising tide of plastic that threatens to overwhelm us?

Proletarian writers

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The capitalist system – incapable of long-term thinking or rational planning – presses the responsibility for useless ‘recycling’ onto working people, whilst the mountains of trash generated by companies like Amazon is pushed onto the developing world. Sustainable capitalism is a dangerous myth: we have be red to be green!

Proletarian writers

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A century and a half ago, the great founding father of Marxist science Friedrich Engels pointed out that the capitalist class is “a class under whose leadership society is racing to ruin like a locomotive whose jammed safety-valve the driver is too weak to open”. (Anti-Dühring, Chapter 13, 1877)

A recent exposé about the bulk disposal of perfectly saleable goods from Amazon warehouses is a case in point. ‘Spokesmen’ were, as usual, wheeled out to clear up the mess and to try to divert the public’s attention from the absolute irrationality of what is clearly just business as usual in the world of monopoly retail.

Amazon UK boss John Boumphrey responded to the firm’s critics in an ITV interview with a typically evasive and throwaway line: “No items are sent to landfill in the UK.”

Oh good, we can all move on. They’re acting correctly and according to the law. If that had been in a newspaper and not on a website, it’d be yesterday’s news, wrapping today’s chips. Or, rather, it wouldn’t, because those days when people did actual re-using and recycling are long gone.

No-one under 35 has ever had their chips wrapped in newspaper. Or seen milk in bottles. Or taken a pop bottle back to the shop to claim their 10p. There’s glossy paper at the chippie now, or even cardboard boxes. And there are plastic bottles and cartons for pop and milk, just as there are a million shiny ways of packaging things to better appeal to the ‘consumers’ we have become.

Look closely and you will see that Evian bottles have a message printed on the label, saying: “Do not refill.” It’s terribly uncouth to use things again, darling. Of course, it is also rather unhealthy to drink water that has been sat in plastic for months while tiny molecules of the bottle leak into the water that you have paid through the nose for because of all the marketing that says it’s good for you.

And because of the gradual reduction in places where you’re allowed to ask for clean tap water. And because of the dwindling number of countries where water from the tap can be assumed to be clean.

The rise and rise of plastic packaging

Much of the need for secure and ample packaging stems from the requirements of today’s global supply chains, which result in every kind of product – from raspberries to shirts, toys to computers, screwdrivers to stepladders – being shipped around the world in huge containers.

All these products need to be securely stackable in straight lines. They also need to be packed in boxes that will stand up to the rigours of a long (road, sea/plane, road again) and largely automated journey from the factory they were made in to the shop or warehouse floor from which they will be sold.

Have you ever bought an Action Man? There is no product more securely packaged than an Action Man. First, you remove the outer layer of thick cardboard; so thick it could be used to build houses. Then you reveal another shaped cardboard area, wrapped in thick plastic; so thick you could use it for windows for the cardboard houses.

You then (if you can find the scissors) cut through this barricade to reveal the plastic-coated metal ties that keep Action Man looking posed and ready for, well, action. Once you’ve got through these, as cut and bruised as the scarred army guy you’re attempting to get at, you then have to get past further layers of plastic that house his plastic accessories – usually boots and guns.

By the time you’ve unwrapped him, you’re too battle-weary to play with him.

Ever bought a remote-controlled car? Those bad boys are actually screwed into their packaging. But no-one provides a screwdriver. If you’re not a handy type, you won’t have a screwdriver, and even if you are, it won’t be small enough. So unless you’re a glasses wearer who’s clumsy with their glasses, you won’t have what you need lying around.

Ah, you might think, I kept that teeny tiny screwdriver that I got in a cracker last Christmas, the only useful piece of tat out of a million crackers that was worth keeping. Only to find that the quality is so poor that the head shears off, or it’s too loose in its handle to turn the screw.

Fancy an orange, but don’t like peeling? No problem: have a ready-peeled orange in a plastic container. Fancy some veg but don’t like washing it? It’s ok, you can buy ready washed, packaged veg in plastic containers, with a teeny tiny foldy fork. Just don’t ask what it was washed in.

The reliance of global trade on throwaway plastics is the reason no government in the capitalist world has done (or will do) anything to seriously impede their use. It’s why we have bans on single-use cups and straws (the emphasis being on you, the guilty consumer) rather than on plastic packaging itself, although it is all that packaging which is creating the real – and still exponentially growing – problem.

The plastics revolution has reshaped global trade and now it is reshaping our world. According to Sander Defruyt, who leads the New Plastics Economy initiative at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation: “On this trajectory, we will have more plastics in our ocean by weight than fish by 2050.” (Five companies make quarter of world’s single use plastics by Camilla Hodgson, Financial Times, 11 June 2021)

With the benefit of hindsight, we can see now that plastic wasn’t the miracle cure it seemed to be when the petrochemicals industry first discovered it. Plastics don’t break down, they simply break into tinier and tinier pieces, and these tiny pieces are being ingested by every organism on earth.

A great soup of such plastics has created trash islands at the centre of every ocean, even though 70 percent of ocean waste actually sinks to the sea floor. It has been estimated that the great Pacific garbage patch covers 1.6 million square kilometres. All the creatures recently examined from the bottom of the Mariana trench (the world’s deepest oceanic abyss) were found to be carrying plastic particles in their insides. Plastic microfibres inside miniscule plankton make their way up the ocean’s food chain to affect everything else, including humans.

The same FT article that cites Mr Detfuyt on the advance of plastic waste in our seas also tells us that “the USA and China” account for the vast majority of demand for single-use plastics. But anyone who knows anything about manufacturing knows that China is merely the location for (rather than the consumer of) a huge proportion of production by western monopolies, which use cheap Chinese workers to assemble their goods and then ship them off to be sold in Europe and the States.

The demand for recycling policies by consumers in the west followed in the wake of the packaging onslaught, as workers saw their private bin bags and littered streets spiralling out of control and felt a genuine concern about what that might mean for our environment. Councils’ green policies followed – not a genuine attempt to solve the problem but distracting greenwashing aimed at lulling voters’ fears and keeping them on board with the economic system that is at the root of all the problems they have correctly identified.

To the extent that these corporations are able to sell their products to workers in the developing world, the onslaught of packaging waste has accompanied them there. Walk down many a street in India and you will be struck by the jarring contrast of old painted house walls with badly-strung and distinctly dangerous-looking electrical wires overhead and gutters full of pink and blue plastic bags at your feet.

Freed to apply modern science and new technologies, humanity could perfectly well reverse this calamitous course and apply the obvious remedies to the situation before the crisis develops further. With sanity and planning, we could stop using plastic for packaging, shifting to substances that could be more easily reused or which would degrade naturally without harming our environment.

We could move away from the practice of long-distance shipping for most of our food and everyday goods, and from the throwaway attitude to almost everything.

But that’s not going to be on offer while finance capital rules the roost, so instead we are forced to watch Nero fiddling while Rome burns, in the form of endless empty debates about plastic bag taxes and plastic straw bans that do nothing but distract our attention from the real problem – and from the real perpetrators of this ecocidal lunacy.

Greenwashing an environmentally broken system with fake ‘recycling’

And, having been forced into this world of ‘convenience’ by the profiteers (who needs a sit-down lunch in a canteen when you can bring a packaged sandwich to your desk?), we find that we are replacing the time we used to spend peeling carrots with time spent sorting out our mountains of recycling.

Every local council now provides residents with a variety of recycling receptacles: all they have to do is acquire a PhD in materials theory to work out which item goes where.

It is now genuinely possible to see social media posts from recycling zealots explaining how we can cut the bottoms off our Pringles containers with a knife so that we can put the can’s three component parts into their separate receptacles. Yes indeed, working people definitely have that kind of time.

Many disposable plastic items are technically possible to recycle, but often end up in landfills all the same, or being burnt, or discarded directly into the environment. And that’s before we get to the throwing away of all kinds of other goods, often brand new and unused, simply because they couldn’t be sold – or sold quickly enough to free up shelf space needed for new product, as in the case of Amazon’s recently revealed mass dumpings.

“An ex-employee, who asked for anonymity, told us: ‘From a Friday to a Friday our target was to generally destroy 130,000 items a week.

“‘I used to gasp. There’s no rhyme or reason to what gets destroyed: Dyson fans, Hoovers, the occasional MacBook and iPad; the other day, 20,000 Covid [face] masks still in their wrappers.

“‘Overall, 50 percent of all items are unopened and still in their shrink wrap. The other half are returns and in good condition. Staff have just become numb to what they are being asked to do.’

“In one week in April, a leaked document from inside the Dunfermline warehouse showed more than 124,000 items marked ‘destroy’. To repeat, that’s just for seven days. In contrast, just 28,000 items in the same period were labelled ‘donate’. The same manager admitted to us that in some weeks, as many as 200,000 items could be marked ‘destroy’.” (Amazon destroying millions of items of unsold stock in one of its UK warehouses every year by Richard Pallot, ITV News, 22 June 2021)

Let’s go back to the quote above from our cuddly Amazon boss. No items are buried in the UK. Ok, so they’re taken somewhere. Where? To Malaysia or India, perhaps? Added to the carnage on an African or east Asian beach where ships are unloaded by workers earning a pittance and their cargos crushed at the rate of about one an hour?

Off to be burned? They do say that if waste is burned in an incinerator, then the particulates become smaller and are therefore not harmful to health. But that’s not what happens, is it? Not somewhere where rules don’t exist to prevent waste being burned in lots of other ways – on cheap but deadly open fires, for example, which perpetually burn in countries like Malaysia.

Once the scrap burners move into poor neighbourhoods in these countries, a toxic stench settles over the surrounding area, bringing with it “sickness and hacking coughs and kids unable to focus in class”.

Malaysian activist Pua likens the smell to “leaving a hot iron on a nylon shirt, toasting its fabric until the fumes singe your sinuses. That times one million. Just taking a walk to the neighbour’s house would leave a sickly film in her throat. Exercising outdoors? Forget it, she says.

“It was like the light dimmed in everyone’s eyes.

“‘What a big shame for Malaysia! We have a beautiful country, a green environment,’ she says. ‘Then it’s like, wow, do you even dare to breathe outside? People would just hide in their rooms.’” (America’s grungy ‘recycled’ plastic is creating wastelands in Asia by Patrick Winn, The World, 13 June 2019)

Recently, a local councillor in west Wales proudly displayed his new recycling receptacles online. For only £50, he told his ‘friends’, you can have one too: a trolley, with snugly-fitting boxes, designed to accommodate that growing mountain of recycling. His constituents were no doubt reassured to know that their local councillors could afford such luxury items, while the rest of them were left chasing their standard-issue bags for plastic and cardboard down the street every windy Wednesday.

What was he trying to prove? Or who was he trying to shame? Is there not enough guilt placed on the working public? Don’t they already feel bad enough about that Action Man they just unpacked, and trying to work out with Venn diagrams and algebra which parts of the packaging they should put where?

Workers are now fined for failing to recycle properly, even as they read in the papers about how that ‘recycling’ is actually being dumped – and despite the fact that the cheaper the goods, the more likely they are to be covered in multiple layers of impenetrable plastic. The poor simply don’t have the option of avoiding all that plastic.

And as councils cut workers’ access to removal of surplus or bulky waste, a spate of local trash collectors has sprung up, offering to get rid of all the stuff that your Venn diagrams fail to place. Bung them in an old-style binbag and we’ll take them away for two quid each, they promise. Job done.

But where do these bags go? If the collector has a waste license, then one hopes that he’ll dispose of your rubbish correctly. If he doesn’t, then he’ll probably have a burn-up after dark.

But what is ‘correctly’? The burn-up guys are probably better for the environment than the council dump, since they don’t bother to ship your waste half way around the world just so some other poor fella has to have the mother of all burn-ups in his own back yard.

Year after year, scandals erupt about the fate of Britain’s ‘recycling’, most of which is not recycled for a variety of reasons that most workers are unaware of, and huge amounts of which are being dumped in the developing world by the outsourced companies our councils are paying to take the problem elsewhere as cheaply as possible.

As usual, in the west, our rulers are palming their problems onto others elsewhere, and then complaining virtuously that those being dumped on don’t have the same regulations that we do; that so called ‘third-world’ countries are the ones doing all the global warming.

Yet still we’re litter bugs (see outside Wembley after the Euros, or Pilton after every Glastonbury festival), endlessly encouraged to consume in the most wasteful manner possible while assuming that it’s someone else’s job to come and clear up our mess.

There are people who come every year to Glastonbury when the revellers have gone home. They come to pick up all the valuables that people have left behind: tents, stoves – you name it, they pick it up and sell it on. It’s a truly Dickensian way to make a living in a rich country like Britain, but it’s one that is repeated all over the developing world.

By contrast, a single mother will get chased down the road by security if she dares to raid the overflowing bins outside her local supermarket, although they are full of food that isn’t yet out of date and is perfectly edible.

If you raid the right bins, you can even find yourself an ex-display Action Man, already unpackaged.

This is the logic of parasitic monopoly capital – impervious to irony and long-term thinking alike. Unable to stop the accelerating juggernaut even though it threatens to mow down the workers on whom it depends for its lifeblood.