The idea behind recycling is to reduce the amount of material which has to be introduced into a system. The thought is somewhat noble -- reduce strain on nature.
It won't work. It can't work. It's doing the exact opposite of its spirit.
Imagine all of human production and consumption in one system -- because that's just what it is. The earth is a closed system apart from sunlight. Resources in this system are limited. Perhaps not limited in the sense of what can be used right now... finite is a better word.
Material is taken away from nature and imported into our system. It is invested in products and some become tainted and unusable somewhere in the system:
- Perhaps while gathering the actual resources, some of it is lost to imperfect extraction. Runoff, etc.
- Perhaps during manufacture, some of the material turns out to not actually be usable.
- Perhaps some material is changed in a way that makes it un-reusable. Packaging is a common example.
Perhaps some material evaporates away, or oxidizes or otherwise deteriorates over time.
However it happens, some small amount of material cannot be turned into the desired product or perhaps no other product.
We can see the materials-system as having multiple pools:
- One is the natural pool, the unclaimed and untainted wilderness.
- One is the resource pool, where wilderness is claimed and perhaps somewhat processed. This is the "raw material" pool.
- One is the parts pool, all of the product-products.
- Another is the finished products pool. This is what consumers see, and where recycling is most famous.
Then there is the heap of garbage.
Other pools exist in some sense or other. I wish to focus on these for now.
This system can be thought of like a giant set of lungs, breathing in wilderness, holding in its breath all of the "productizable" material, and exhaling garbage. In a system like the Earth, it is very much like leaving a car running in a garage... with all of humanity sitting together in the front seat. We're dead, all of us, without exception, unless the car is turned off. That can't happen, of course.
The exhaust can be turned inward, like a hose from the tailpipe fed into the window. The materials system can be closed, taking not from nature but from its own waste.
The car can be leak-proofed. The exhaust can be purified. Our products can rely on less toxins, and can be designed for recyclability.
Until some sort of "perfect" closed system for every last human use of nature can be in place, recycling only delays the inevitable. While recycling occurs, it buffers the resource-gathering side of the system. It becomes and additional exploitable resource. Bit it does nothing to dissuade the nature-exploitation side.
Recycling creates a perception. It moderates the psychological horror of sitting in that car with the hose through its window. At best it's rolling the window down a little.
The solution? Less or better exhaust? No. Get rid of the car? Native cultures globally live like that. At this point our population requires a level of resource use that demands the system.
Roll up the windows, fix the exhaust, close the materials-system and leave nature to heal. The level of efficiency required would be like taking all of humanity and floating it in space in a giant space station. Leave earth entirely. This level of efficiency can be done on earth, but the visual is helpful.
Recycling is a slight-of-hand preventing us from directly seeing our doom. It is a valuable delay for the inevitable, but it is absolutely not a solution in and of itself unless perfectly -- definitely perfectly -- closed systems are in place.