Ed van Hinte: 'Recycling creates more waste'

21 December 2017

If recycling was not a synonym for green, you could call it the new black. Companies proudly state on their products that they are (partly) made using recycled materials and every week consumers dutifully make their way to the plastic recycling container armed with bags full of plastic. But is it worthwhile? Not necessarily, according to industrial designer, writer and researcher Ed van Hinte.

'Recycling creates more waste'
Continued use rather than reuse

Van Hinte (born 1951) has spent many years conducting research on improving the sustainability of production processes. 'Currently, recycling is generally seen as the obvious thing to do, but that shouldn’t be the case. It wastes a lot of energy and produces products that are of lower value.' Worse than that: recycling means that we actually produce more waste. 'If there’s demand for waste that can be recycled, the supply increases', says van Hinte. 'As a result, there’s no incentive to produce less waste and reduce the flow of materials. Recycling replicates the ideal of material growth.' It is worthwhile producing waste because waste is a good-value raw material for another company.

Some examples: In the past, fruit juice carton misprints were used to make protective cardboard for floors. Additional packs were then printed to be marketed as protective cardboard. Another example: Friesland Campina recently launched its ‘Mest de Groene Motor’ (Manure as a Green Engine) campaign, in which manure is used as a raw material for biofuels, alternative fertilisers and foodstuffs. On the circular business website ciculairondernemen.nl, the surplus manure was referred to as a 'goldmine'. This removes any incentive to produce less manure.

Yet another example: work clothing manufactured from yarn made with PET bottles, in other words used packaging. 'With packaging, it makes much more sense if it’s made biodegradable’ says van Hinte. 'Recycling is largely about logistics and the logistics involved in the recycling of plastic are hugely complicated: there are lots of different types of plastic in circulation of differing quality and they all end up in a single pile.' The Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis recently reported that recycling plastic delivers hardly any environmental benefit. The best thing that can be made from all the plastic you have so carefully collected and handed in is a roadside post.

So should we stop recycling? 'I wouldn’t go that far, but it makes a lot more sense to see how we can extend the life-cycle of products and produce things using less material. Unfortunately, the way we think about sustainability is still bound up in economics, which takes quantitative rather than qualitative growth as its point of departure. Too little account is taken of the rebound effect.'

On the subject of material reduction, Van Hinte has written a book entitled Lightness. He has been working for some time on research into the construction of a lightweight house that requires fewer raw materials. 'A third of all the waste we produce comes from construction and a third of that from new construction! Concrete pollutes the environment, is almost impossible to recycle and digging up sand in large quantities – used to make concrete – disrupts the ecosystem!'

On the subject of extending life-cycles van Hinte has written three books, including Eternally Yours and Products that Last. 'Extending product life-cycles traditionally focused on design and the possibilities for repair', says van Hinte, 'but much more is involved when you consider that it’s really about delaying recycling and maintaining the value for as long as possible: ‘continued use, in other words’. According to van Hinte it is here that the emphasis should primarily lie.

Recycling is pointless if we do not first learn to produce and consume more smartly and in a completely different way. 'Economics is about identity and self-image', says van Hinte, 'We need to innovate so that we can satisfy greater numbers of people in their self-image using fewer materials'.

'A car is a dress on wheels'

How can we do things differently?

The car

'When steel from the car industry is recycled, the quality of the steel is degraded. What’s more, the main thing that a car actually transports is itself (considering the weight of the car and that of the people in it) and our self-image. It’s a dress on wheels. If we made cars lighter, with less exterior, as is now happening with experimental solar-powered cars, for example, less would need to be recycled and an electric car would also have a greater range.'


'In Changsha in China, a lightweight apartment block with 57 floors was recently built in just 19 days. It is calculated that this saved 15,000 truckloads of concrete. It is known that the manufacture of one ton of concrete produces a ton of carbon emissions. Concrete is also difficult to recycle.'


'Some time ago, H&M announced a range of recycled clothing. If you look at the life-cycle of products from chains like H&M and Primark, recycling textiles is a difficult process. The turnover speeds of clothing vary. In the case of a blouse that people wear for a month after purchase, or never at all, you would be better off using biodegradable materials. In that case the degrading process uses no energy.'

Ed van Hinte (born 1951) is an industrial designer, researcher, writer and lecturer on the Master’s programme in Industrial Design in The Hague and at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. In 2011, he joined forces with designer Renate Boere in setting up the DRS22 design agency, where he conducts research into lightweight structures. On the subject of lightweight structures, with a particular focus on sustainability, he co-authored the book Lightness with Adriaan Beukers, specialist in lightweight structures. Before sustainability became fashionable, Van Hinte also wrote Eternally Yours (1997) on extending the life-cycle of products. The book has become a collectors’ item. In partnership with Delft University of Technology, he also wrote Products that Last (2014) on the same theme. Currently, van Hinte is part of the Feed your Mind foundation, which develops initiatives to prevent food waste.

Paradoxically, developments in technology and other areas that result in more efficient use of energy or raw materials do not save any energy or materials because consumption increases. This exasperating law of economics was first described in 1865 by Englishman William Stanley Jevons. 'In thinking about sustainability, too little account is taken of the rebound effect', argues van Hinte, 'the financial benefits of recycling or energy conservation are converted directly into more consumption.' A classic example is the energy-saving light bulb: its introduction resulted in no energy gain because people left the lights on for longer in more places, because it consumed less energy and therefore cost less.

original text: Merel Kamp
translation: UvA Talen