While it may be indispensable, recycling can sometimes be a bit of a smokescreen, potentially leading consumers to buy more throwaway items. From greenwashing, to the myth of the infinitely recyclable, and biased consumer information, Flore Berlingen takes an in-depth look at the issue in her book Recyclage le grand enfumage [Recycling: the smokescreen of waste], which was published last year in France by Éditions Rue de l’Échiquier.

Offering recyclable packaging has become an imperative for brands, which are facing a growing consumer demand for environmental protection. However, "recyclable" does not mean "recycled" and the craze for "the circular economy" could suggest that waste can be infinitely processed for reuse. According to Flore Berlingen, the former head of Zéro Waste France, the circular economy became the ally of throwaway consumption. She notably alerts readers to the ecological limits of recycling and the counterproductive nature that recycling has taken on over the years.

In reality, the recyclable nature of a product remains purely theoretical. Product packaging can, for example, be considered recyclable if it’s made from a recyclable material, but there still needs to be an operational collection network in the region or the country, which isn’t always the case,” Berlingen explains.

Sales argument

Since it fulfills an environmental expectation - which is increasingly important among consumers - recycling has become a strong sales argument. “Yet American scientists have shown, in a study, that this promise subconsciously incites us to stop feeling guilty about our consumption behavior. This way of thinking could be counterproductive and makes us waste time in our ecological transition, which is nevertheless urgent,” adds the author.

In theory, it’s of course preferable to use recycled materials to manufacture new items, rather than 100% virgin materials. Nevertheless, the production of products — even if made partly from recycled materials — always requires substantial expenditure of water and energy.

To take again the example of a single-use packaging item, its disposable nature will in any case cause resources to be wasted. It therefore seems more relevant to ask yourself whether such an object is of real use to society and to try to see if you can do things differently by looking for alternatives”, Berlingen highlights.

Maximizing the objects’ use

The same logic applies to upcycling, the question to ask is whether or not the object made using waste has a sustainable function.

Flore Berlingen, on the other hand, is more interested in the concept of re-use, which extends an object’s lifespan by maximizing its use.