Rethinking Recycling

By Badia Nehme.Image from

One pertinent current marketing trend is green marketing. Green marketing involves framing products as eco-friendly, such as “recycled toilet paper” and promoting them heavily to consumers. This is an effective marketing strategy; because purchasing eco-friendly products, riding your bike, or recycling can all make a consumer think that they are contributing environmental prosperity (Maniates 2001, 33).

Similarly, using social media can make you feel politically active, but it is an individualistic action. In his study of individual action on environmental issues, Michael Maniates critiques this level of individual action as it creates the feeling of accomplishment without changing the status quo or considering external solutions for environmental problems (50). If we concede that over-consumption is a major contributor to environmental issues, purchasing eco-friendly products only adds to this issue – it makes it seem as through the answer to over-consumption is more consumption. Small actions like recycling or buying eco-friedly products makes consumers feel they are doing everything they need to be doing (33). Overall, Maniates argues that individualistic action limits collective action and mobilization, prevents change, and limits thought (50). If we are only focused on more consumerism as a solution for environmental issues, we forget about those who are negatively impacted by consumption and the production system.

Other than that, individual action can make it difficult to understand the chains of production, and it separates us from the events that take place elsewhere (Dauvergne 2008,19). Globalization has resulted in a lack of transparency as well as a distancing between the consumer and the products in the overall line of production. This distancing is what Dauvergne calls “shadows of consumption” (19). Shadows of consumption are the unseen secondary factors that affect populations within the chain of consumerism. For example, Dauvergne cites how rainforests are being continuously logged, causing the loss of biological diversity, and how chemicals like DDT that are used to kill mosquitos actually harm populations through bio-accumulation and destroy eco-systems (20). These shadows remain unseen. If they became clear to consumers, consumption habits may change, and large corporations have vested interests in promoting the status quo of individualistic action. This argument is taken further by Dauvergne and Lebaron when they look at eco-waste and the recycling industry.

Dauvergne and Lebaron combine the individualistic nature of recycling and the chains of production, showing how they are distanced from the public, creating a shadow of consumption, and causing further harm to people. Mass systems of eco-recycling are thriving at the expense of incarcerated persons and women and children in areas within the Global South (2013, 410). Further, major companies such as Toyota, Xerox, and Walmart, are attempting to become more ecofriendly for consumers (411). However, in order to achieve this eco-friendly status, these companies are continuing to take advantage of low-cost labor in the Global South and the United States’ prison systems to achieve this goal (411). In some cases, people within these areas are used as waste-pickers, further exploiting societal inequities (425). The exploitation of these inequities are putting the workers – who are made up of a majority of women, children and prisoners – in danger, suffering from acid burns, developing illnesses, and premature death (425). Furthermore, these are populations that have little choice in employment, further perpetuating this cycle of harm, as our desire for both consumption of products and the recycling of products increases.

Recycling is used to make us feel as if we are doing our part, though little is done to change the systems of consumption that drive globalization and the capitalist economy. These practices create shadows of consumption that end up harming the environment and communities more than helping our planet and those who are most vulnerable. Before individuals purchase their 20% recycled toilet paper or recycle their water bottles, we need to engage in collective discussions about how these actions contribute to exploitation and may even limit change. We must additionally acknowledge the inequities of some individual actions on climate change and instead strive for a more socially aware form of action, such as larger-scale mobilization and decreasing consumption.

Works Cited
Dauvergne, Peter. The Shadows of Consumption : Consequences for the Global Environment, MIT Press, 2008, D=3338936.

Dauvergne, Peter, and Genevieve Lebaron. “The Social Cost of Environmental Solutions.” New Political Economy, vol. 18, no. 3, 2013, pp. 410–430.

Maniates, Michael F. “Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?.” Global Environmental Politics, vol. 1, no. 3, 2001, pp. 31-52.

Salah, Hisham. “Dr.WEEE: Egypt’s latest vision for e-waste management” 2016.

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