I’m taking a moment to review a personal milestone: reporting on recycling trends for ten years now. It’ll be 11 in January. That’s almost a hundred issues of Recycling International and eight issues of Recycling Technology. And still, the global recycling scene is a treasure trove of stories.
It’s fair to say I’ve witnessed the birth of the global sustainability movement. Granted, it’s been a slow and gradual journey. One accompanied by a notable level of frustration. While I realise that things aren’t perfect yet (is that even possible?), I have to admit we’ve done a pretty good job so far.
The circular economy is top of mind for consumers, leading brands and policy makers, while recyclers are finally gaining recognition for being the world’s environmental backbone. What a difference a decade makes. Looking back, I can still recall those awkward chats with distant family members at birthdays and holidays. Let me replay that conversation for you:
‘What do you do nowadays?’
‘I’m a journalist.’
‘So you work at a newspaper?’
‘No, actually, I work at a magazine. A business-to-business publication about recycling.’
‘What does that mean? You write about my green bin?’
‘I write about global trends for businesses working in recycling. We don’t focus on local stories, but rather international ones. Big investments, business deals, new technology, legislation, trade… everything that impacts the daily operations of the recycling industry.’
I honestly felt like handing out a media kit at this point.
‘That sounds like a lot.’ (They’d usually say this with a heavy sigh.)
‘It’s a very diverse topic. It’s not just the stuff you put out at the kerbside. It’s what happens afterwards. The equipment they use to clean, sort, bale and shred the material. What all that stuff gets made into, new applications, new rules to allow for more applications.’
‘So how do you know all this?’
‘I talk to people. I ask a lot of questions.’
‘How do you know them?’
‘I travel and network. I attend conferences, trade shows. Big events where hundreds, sometimes thousands, of people gather to learn about everything that is new on the market.’
‘So where have you been? Germany and the UK?’
‘All over the place. India, Thailand, the US, all over Europe. They don’t just recycle in Germany and the UK. There are so many innovative people working in recycling all over the world. Even in remote areas, on islands and in emerging nations.’
‘So you don’t just write about Europe then?’
‘Not really. The world has so much to offer. It’s a global village, right? This is definitely true in the world of recycling. I can tell you about best practices in solar panel recycling in Australia and e-scrap recycling in South Africa.’
‘So it’s not just metal scrap?’
‘Short answer: no. Anything that can be recycled, and trust me that’s a very long list, is something I can write about. Aircraft, for example, contain carbon fibres. The same goes for modern-day cars. It’s not just aluminium and steel anymore. It’s plastics, multi-materials and, of course, the batteries often found inside.’
Another long pause as they absorb the information thrown at them. I often considered just excusing myself to get more cake or wine. But they asked, didn’t they? And isn’t it important to educate people on what recycling is actually capable of? Indeed!
‘Recycling batteries…?’ This would be the logical response. Mind you, in 2012, e-cars hadn’t taken off like they have now. There were a lot of sceptics out there and people still generally thought of their remote controls when thinking of batteries.
‘Batteries as well as magnets are inside a lot of products we use. Your mobile phone, for example. And your computer screen. They are small yet powerful – and they can be powerful again if they fall into the right hands.’
I’d explain not all people in the waste sector have the right intentions, but, despite controversial headlines about malpractices and illegal exports, that there are a lot of good guys. People who follow the rules and do their best to innovate.
‘That’s why it’s so important we have a solid infrastructure to collect the material. If we can’t collect it, we can’t recycle it. That’s where sorting comes in; where you have the power to make a difference.’
Their eyes would light up. ‘With my green bin!’
‘With your green bin, yes! And your grey bin! And your plastic bin! And your compost bin! It’s the principle of the closed loop; we’re all connected.’
‘Ah, that’s nice.’
‘Beats working at a newspaper, doesn’t it?’
In any conversations I have now, I can skip over most of the boring details and people will tell me: ‘Oh, that’s interesting. Have you donated to the Ocean Cleanup too?’