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Creative destruction

Forfatter: Finn Arne Jørgensen
Forlag: MIT Press, (USA)
GARBAGE / Norway is not equipped for textile sorting. Although we sort rubbish, we are nowhere near places in Japan that can recycle in 34 different categories. The goal is that the municipalities are not left with any waste – and without garbage trucks!


Today, ten percent of our total CO2emissions from clothing production. And we do not have good recycling schemes in place; much is thrown on the heap. Here there is rubbish both in the atmosphere and on earth. Couldn't we just recycle everything instead?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology has a "knowledge series" that offers the reader accessible and understandable short books on important topics. Leading thinkers in various disciplines give us the expert's overview of disciplines from culture, history, science and technology. Finn Arne Jørgensen, professor of environmental history at the University of Stavanger, has contributed an edition on recycling. It is clear, interesting and worth reading.

Today, recycling is about environmental ideology and desired earnings.

The book is structured around ten short chapters that take us into the history of the modern phenomenon of recycling. Recycling is something different today than past recycling driven by poverty. Today it is about environmental ideology and desired earnings. Jørgensen gives us a quick overview of the history of materials such as plastic, aluminum, paper and textiles as well as our own faeces, food waste and industrial and electronic waste. Very readable.

Modern recycling

Recycling is not a political post, but discusses what waste really is, what of this is possibly valuable, who is responsible for growing waste mountains, and what possible solutions we may have. Today, we like to see recycling as modern magic that transforms ever-increasing amounts of useless materials and things we surround ourselves with into things of value.

We are good at recycling in Norway. But in the city of Kamikatsu in Japan, they recycle in 34 different categories, says Jørgensen. The goal is to become a zero-waste municipality, without garbage trucks. The inhabitants themselves must bring waste to recycling stations and thus gain an intimate knowledge of their own waste. Personal responsibility is paramount.

The Norwegian researcher Annegret Bruvoll problematizes personal responsibility, writes Jørgensen. She claims that we have to recycle our plastic bags for several hundred years before we save the amount of oil we use on one return trip Oslo-San Francisco. This often hurts to hear for Norwegians, who are both good at recycling and traveling. Bruvoll's perspective is that if we do not combine recycling with dramatic lifestyle changes, we are actually hypocritical.

Plastics, fish, mines and textiles

We produce waste through our mere existence, Jørgensen writes. The fight against waste never ends. The corona pandemic shows us this by the fact that our sewer systems are more congested than before, since we pull several disposable cloths and in some cases gloves in the wrong place, often in the toilet. Already in 2017, Thames Water showed the world a shocking picture when they cleaned out a giant mountain of grease from their systems. This was 250 meters long and weighed 130 tons. The sum of many individuals' actions (such as throwing contact lenses and Q-tips in the toilet) becomes a problem for the community.

Plastic is a major marine pollution problem, and there are areas that are completely covered in plastic, such as what has been named the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. But also at the world's deepest place, the Marianergropen at about 10 meters, plastic has been found. In the wider world, it is often individuals who pull plastic into the rivers, while in Norway the fishing industry is the main culprit.

The corona pandemic shows us that the sewer systems are more congested than before, since
we pull several disposable cloths.

The mining industry is another major waste producer. Here, recycling is difficult. The waste is dumped instead, and often without the locals being heard. This is pollution like pure colonialism, often financed by foreign capital.

In an exciting chapter on textiles, Jørgensen visits the global fashion industry. Some have described it as "creative destruction", to use a term from Schumpeter. He argues that capitalism depends on a constant devaluation or destruction of what we have today, in order to create new wealth. This constant cycle of destruction and production is a built-in logic in today's society
- something the fashion industry in particular makes a living from, since it creates a lot of waste. Some are recycled by poor Indians and reused, but a good deal ends up in the wrong place. Some therefore call the fashion industry "fast fashion", in line with fast food. Here it is not quality or sustainability that is paramount, but eternal growth.

Since Jørgensen's book came on the market, the EU has launched new strict environmental requirements, and from 2025 all textiles must be sorted out of the residual waste. As of today, Norway is not prepared for textile sorting.

Lido Contemori

Circular economy

We may see recycling as an attempt to make the world a little more sustainable, despite our overspending. Recycling will not save the world, but it is still important, as according to Jørgensen it can give us consumers a waste awareness.

It is not enough to leave recycling all the way to the market. It may seem cheaper to make new bottles instead of recycling old ones, but that's just because we do not include environmental costs. It may also be cheaper to send the waste to China for processing and recycling, but then the emissions from the transport of the waste are not taken into account.

Jørgensen does not discuss circular economy as a concept. It's a shame, as it's a concept that is now coming full circle. Here, waste is seen as resources going astray. The EU is committed to moving in this direction. But how circular is Norway? How should governments, business and organizations work together to move from a linear to a circular economy? The new organization Norwegian Circular Economy asks about this. Their Circularity Gap Report Norway is a survey of how materials in the Norwegian economy are consumed, recycled, disposed of or stored. The analysis can provide Norway with a basis for further work towards a circular economy.

But despite the fact that Jørgensen does not touch on this, his book is thought-provoking and inspiring. At the same time, we need to debate today's growth fetishism more critically. We are overloading the biosphere.

Today, the middle class is growing rapidly, and most people want a material level they see elsewhere – which advertising feeds everyone with. And the Chinese are trying to become even more American than the Americans themselves. This does not bode well. Recycling is therefore a necessary small handbook.

Andrew P. Kroglund
Andrew P. Kroglund
Kroglund is a critic and writer. Also Secretary General of BKA (Grandparents' Climate Action).

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