On the importance of communication — a case study
On the 28th of October 2021, the Belfast Telegraph published an article entitled
“Gadzooks! Is bumbling Boris right about recycling?”
We liked the word ‘Gadzooks’.
Sadly, however, this is where our amusement ended because to answer the question raised in the title:
No, he isn’t!
The article describes a press conference for kids held by the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
When faced with the question
“What are we going to do to make sure that people and business use less plastic?”
the PM said:
“Recycling isn’t the answer.
I’ve got to be honest with you; you’re not going to like this. It does not begin to address the problem.
You can only recycle plastic a couple of times, really. What you’ve got to do is to stop the production of plastic.”
Strong words for a PM, and we wonder whether he would have addressed a delegation of the British petroleum industry or the drinks' industry in quite the same way.
What is important to realise here is that in true politician style, Boris Johnson chose to answer the question he wanted to answer.
Never mind, that it was not the question he was asked and what that says about his respect for those he was talking to.
As for the PM’s dictum that “you can recycle plastic only a couple of times, really,” well, that depends very much on the particular kind of plastic to be recycled and the recycling process in question.
Or maybe he was thinking of paper, which really can only be recycled a couple of times because with every recycle the fibres in the paper become shorter and shorter until you can’t make paper from them any more.
the journalist who wrote the article, then went on to argue that
“only about 15% of our plastic waste is recycled in the UK.
A further 20% is shipped abroad, often to developing countries which don’t have the infrastructure to cope, so it ends up getting burnt, sent to landfill, or polluting the oceans, where it kills hundreds of thousands of sea-birds and animals.
The rest is incinerated or slung into landfill here at home.”
She also writes:
“I kept wondering whether all the meticulous rubbish-sorting actually benefited the planet, or was it more akin to a virtue-signalling religion — genuflecting before an approved moral cause, rather than making a real, practical difference.”,
and goes on to say that
“it seems clear that, at least when it comes to recycling plastics, our well-meaning efforts are nowhere near enough to address the climate crisis.
The monstrous scale of the pollution is too great.
Picture a lorry-load of plastics being dumped in the sea every minute of every day and you begin to get a sense of it.
I’m all for personal responsibility and individual action, but the ongoing plastic disaster won’t be averted unless global corporations — such as the drinks companies that churn out gazillions of single-use plastic bottles — change their dirty ways.”
Well, we agree, of course we do.
Of course, far too many plastic bottles are dumped into the terrestrial and aquatic environment, where they cause a multitude of problems.
Of course the usual suspects (Coca-Cola, Nestlé etc.) churn out gazillions of single-use plastic bottles.
However, we would argue that waste sorting and waste recycling are not the same thing.
Sorting the waste is a necessary step to recycling it.
It is not recycling per se. If waste is separated and sent to landfill, then it is obviously not recycled.
It is important to make the difference between these two concepts, certainly from a scientific standpoint but from a communication point of view as well.
Environmental efforts rest on the willingness of people to do their part.
The willingness of people to do their part rests on their understanding of the matter.
The following distinction is equally significant:
Waste separation is an act of individuals.
Everybody can make sure that they put waste plastic bottles (or other products) into the waste plastic bin.
Recycling, on the other hand, is an industrial process.
An individual person cannot recycle a plastic bottle. What you as an individual person can do is to vote with your wallet and buy products packaged in recycled plastic.
So, is separating your household waste mere “genuflection before an approved moral cause, rather than making a real, practical difference”?
The waste sorting individual has done their bit. It would be making a real practical difference if politics did their bit and banned the export of waste.
Here we partially agree with Boris Johnson:
Reducing the production of plastics is certainly important, even vital.
However, this will not change the demand for it.
If there is a market for one gazillion soft drinks, then the drinks' industry will need one gazillion plastic bottles.
Collecting these single-use bottles and recycling the plastic they are made of is what’s going to make the big difference. This is the circular economy in a nutshell. In fact, it is the prerequisite for the stop of plastic production the Prime Minister so boldly called for.
P.S.: It appears, The Belfast Telegraph has changed the title of the article since its first publication. It is now entitled “Believe it or not, doubting Boris is right about recycling”. The title of the webpage linked above, however, still displays the original title.