Misleading recycling claims trigger outcry

By Kathleen Naday Source:Global Times Published: 2016/12/4 19:43:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Earlier this year, there was a public outcry in the UK when it was revealed on a BBC television program that almost no disposable hot drink cups from major food and drink chains were actually recyclable, despite the logos on the cups that implied these one-use cups were environmentally friendly.

Major chains hastily dropped the logo and explained that the cups are actually quite hard to recycle, as they are a mix of plastic and cardboard, meaning that only 1 in 400 cups in the UK was recycled. 

Meanwhile, Germans were shocked to learn that they dump 2.8 billion disposable cups annually into landfill, the BBC reported in November. The average lifetime of a cup is only 15 minutes. 

A few days ago, one of the major British chains, Costa Coffee, announced an in-store recycling scheme, the first of its kind, and also said it would accept cups from its rivals, like Starbucks. To this end, it has created what it calls a "Paper Cup Manifesto" aiming to revamp the entire supply chain and work to ensure that waste is minimized. Other coffee chains in different countries are exploring things like reusable cups that can be returned to different stores for a small deposit. It remains to be seen whether initiatives like this can actually make a difference to the shockingly high amount of waste that is thrown away everyday and does not make it into the recycling system.

Coffee cups may just be one very visible reminder of how we throw away resources.

Other organizations are starting to pay attention to the issues of clothing waste. In the US, 10.5 million tons of clothing is discarded every year, with only 15 percent recycled, the Atlantic reported. Clothing has never been cheaper to buy, especially in the West, with firms actively marketing one-season throw-away garments - products that are not built to last.

Nowadays, we congratulate ourselves when we find products that are cheap and disposable. But we need a complete re-think in how we treat products.

Big companies like Apple have rightly come under a lot of criticism over planned obsolescence - limiting the life of a product. Apple's whole marketing strategy is predicated on their fans choosing the latest model rather than trying to extend the life of their current device, so that if you do try to get the battery changed, the warranty is void.

Can anything be done to stop our reliance on this cradle-to-grave model? Traditional business is considered to be linear - resources are used to make a product, which has a finite life and then is discarded. Businesses have obviously profited from this model, which means they can continue to sell more. In the 1920s, light bulb companies, including Osram, Phillips and GE, got together to form a cartel to reduce the life span of bulbs to around 1,000 hours - technology had developed to the extent that bulbs were lasting too long and sales were plummeting. 

Now many environmental organizations are pushing for the adoption of the circular economy model, or "cradle-to-cradle," where anything that can be reused from a product or throughout the industrial process will be recycled and reused.

In some cases, laws have been enacted to force companies into better business practices, for example, the banning of incandescent bulbs in the EU, and some have targeted consumers - such as a tax on one-use plastic bags in British supermarkets. It was recently reported that since this tax was introduced in October 2015, not only did bag use drop by 85 percent, but the amount of plastic trash washing up on the countries beaches has also dropped by half.

But it will only be significant if there is a complete change of mentality at the top. While some businesses are starting to change their production processes, governments need to make it easier for them too. In China, working toward a circular economy and closing industrial loops is a national strategic plan, part of the drive toward increased sustainability. It won't be easy. While the country is making headway toward greater resource-use efficiency - for example by creating business parks in which one industry can use the waste generated by another - overall resource consumption is up, and much more needs to be done to make industry less wasteful and focus on less resource-hungry "dirty" industries.

Of course, industry is not the only culprit in wasting resources. Tackling the throw-away culture won't be easy.

We have all known that we should be cutting down our ecological footprint for years, yet businesses are making it easier than ever to consume more and more. But in the end, it will be consumers who can choose whether to buy from more ethical companies, and pressure them to do better. Because once large multinationals start seriously tackling their wasteful behavior, they will surely benefit from decreased cost and more revenue, and this may bring about a complete change in how the planet does business.

The author is a Global Times editor. kathleennaday@globaltimes.com.cn Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion

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