Recycling : Shifting the problem to the future…?

october 2015 (1/2  see part 2:  )

PART I: recycling in the future.

 What about claims about  recycling in future? Shifting the problem to your children, and claiming a profit now? Recycling seems a good idea. And it is. However, its one of the most frequent misused criteria for sustainability, claiming environmental profit when is not there. I discussed examples frequently  with colleague researchers and experts around the world, and they are regularly forced into situations where future recycling should count as a profit, when its not . Even when it comes to LCA.  A few of the claims are explored here, starting with future-recycling (part 1) , after a lifetime’s use of virgin resources today.

The argument is: it can be recycled after use. This is one of the most frequent used fake arguments .


First of all, anything can be recycled. I have seen houses in Berlin, made of concrete panels from demolished Soviet apartment blocks: These where not meant to recycle, and not designed to dismantle. But they did. And even as a business case. That something can be recycled is not a distinctive argument.

By the way: its still is a good strategy to design for recycling. But also then: that counts for all materials and does not say anything about actual recycling in future.


You can only claim something, if you really do something, establish something. Not from a supposed, maybe, possibly, perhaps, re-use in some far future. When you yourself are probably dead. Nobody has any idea how the world looks like in 50 years or so. ( that is for buildings, but it applies as well for shorter periods , to be  explored in part II)

In fact if you use the argument that something can be recycled in 50 years , your just pushing the problem 50 years backwards: You are saying: Who minds now, by then they can recycle. And They ? They are your children.


Its even worse: If you are serious about your children having the same choices we have now, then they should also have the choice not to recycle, and use new virgin materials. Which we preserved for them to use. And not condemn them to live of our waste.


By not using recycled material yourself, now, but claiming yours can be recycled after, materials deplete faster, and the need to recycle becomes even bigger: The action creates its own truth: in future there is no other way then to recycle….


So far so good, its only words. But there is more , even in formal calculations.


If you include the impact of materials use in your environmental calculations for a current project, like embodied energy of production and other effects, in that case  the recycling after lifetime does not belong  to your life cycle system borders anymore: It is the stock of material for the next cycle of product life, which eventually uses the ‘building-to-demolish’ as stock for their new calculation. Its the new mining area. Profits or impacts from that do not belong to the first time use system boundary, it would be double counting . Unless you neglect the materials impact from your current use, when you can include recycling afterwards, But then of course, you cheat by not including current impacts. Its a matter of system borders.


I emphasized 5, because of 6: its ridiculous , and it happens,  that future -potential- recycling is included in a LCA today. Not as a impact, but as a profit…! A reduction on impact of virgin materials is given because of future potential for re-use… Will the materials be recycled? And to what extent? Nobody knows or guarantees.  Not to speak about system borders as in 5.

This is really the world upside down. There is no profit whatsoever, today, there is only heavy impact from virgin materials. Its ‘creative bookkeeping’ , but pure misleading .


part II next week:  about current recycling

Author: ronald rovers