Gaza is Recycling Bomb Wreckages. What Does That Mean For Europe?
Whilst Gaza recycles bomb wreckages, we have a recycling rate of just 39% in the UK.
Humans are both the most creative and most destructive force on this planet, living often in disharmony with one another, and ourselves. We stretch our time, our energy, and our resources, putting ourselves under great scrutiny and pressure. But, as a wise person once said, ‘pressure makes diamonds.’
In harmony with that quote is a story coming out of war-torn Gaza, a story of pressure making diamonds, of lemons making lemonade.
The victims of war are recycling the rubble to rebuild their city.
With a ten year long Israeli-Egyptian blockade set up and a conflict ongoing since June 2006, few imports are coming in, causing the construction industry to tumble, as well as many other sectors. Under regular siege from Israel, there are an abundance of hollowed-out buildings to provide the rubble, warped steel, and shattered debris for reuse.
Recyclers in the small state (about the same size as Sheffield) are arguably busier during war time than at any other period, as they are called in to salvage destroyed buildings. The process is quite simple: they are assigned a building, they go in, they take the big chunks of walls and floors with diggers and labourers, and they head to a crushing site. The crushed material is largely gravel, which they are able to recycle into concrete or as an alternative to asphalt for roads. It’s commonplace now, in Gaza, for the smaller winding roads around neighbourhoods to be laid with the remnants of former buildings. They are also forging breeze blocks from the rubble.
The gravel created by collecting and crushing building debris costs around £15 per tonne to buy, as opposed to £30 for imported gravel. Workers also have to be careful regarding personal items under the rubble, and they do a good job to return them to their rightful owners when possible. In a war zone, that possibility is severely reduced.
Thrift in difficult situations… Or not?
As we reported recently in our feature that zoomed in on Victorian recycling techniques in the 1800s, it is traditionally in times where resources are most limited that we become most resourceful. Of course, for the UK right now, living in a time of relative abundance, our 39% recycling rate looks comparatively bad when we put it next to a story like the one above, where Gaza’s people have no option but to see everything as a resource.
When we compare ourselves to our European counterparts, we have the 10th best recycling rate. Austria (63%), Germany (62%), and Belgium (58%) are at the top. The Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Luxembourg and Switzerland are all above us too. What do all of those countries have in common? They’re wealthy. In fact, the ten countries above all fall within the top 15 countries in Europe in terms of GDP per capita. Five of them are in the top ten richest countries in the world, by the same measure. If you put the wealth of nations next to their recycling rates, the lists are strikingly similar.
So, in 2018, the richer you are, the better you are at recycling.
How on Earth did that happen?
Let’s look at the other end of the scale.
The worst recycling nations in Europe* (on record) are Bulgaria (0%), Turkey (1%), Romania (1%), Croatia (4%), and Lithuania (5%). Unsurprisingly, in terms of GDP per capita, they’re all in the bottom 20. Slovakia and Latvia, are next, and again, they’re in the bottom 20. So why are the poorest countries not thrifty any more? What happened?
Many people would look to history and assume that the rich would be the most wasteful due to their abundance, and that the poor would be the most resourceful due to their scarcity, but it hasn’t happened that way.
The rich built recycling facilities, resource technologies, developed sustainability agendas, followed waste management strategies, and invested in their nation’s capabilities to handle waste. They saw waste as a resource. The rich countries grouped together, collaborated, held each other accountable, got competitive about it, and forcefully turned waste into something resourceful by employing scientists to discover uses for it.
The poor countries burned it and buried it. They couldn’t afford to keep up with modern resource management.
*Some European countries are not being tracked, and so their recycling figures are guesstimates at best. The five poorest countries in Europe and their estimated (but unverifiable) recycling rates are Moldova (0%), Ukraine (4%), Kosovo (0%), Albania (14%), and Macedonia (0.5%).
There are exceptions
In terms of GDP per capita, Ireland is the 4th richest country in Europe, Iceland are 8th, Finland are 10th, and France are 14th. These countries are all richer than us, and worse at recycling. Ireland 36%, France 35%, Finland 33%, and Iceland 23%! Looking specifically at Ireland and Iceland, there may be something in their culture or history that explains why.
Ireland, having been through a recent war, famine, mass exodus, and more, are thriving in the EU, and are perhaps still enjoying a period of abundance. They simply haven’t caught up in terms of waste management, in terms of recycling infrastructure, and in terms of domestically dealing with their waste. In fact, they are the country in the EU that most depends on waste exporting to handle their waste. However, they’re trying, they were one of the world’s first to introduce a plastic bag ban, and they are actively working to develop a domestic recycling market.
For Iceland, being so far away geographically from continental Europe is their downfall. They don’t have the facilities to handle things domestically, so all recyclable materials’ chances of being recycled depend solely on whether the market price is high enough to warrant shipping it. If it isn’t valuable enough, which is commonly the case with glass, for example, it ends up going to landfill. Their best hope of raising that 23% is to invest in a circular economy on the island.
We made the comparison between recycling rates and GDP per capita, but there’s a third list which bares a striking resemblance. The list of years that countries joined the EU. If you read that list from the original founders of the EU, all the way down to the most recent entrant (Croatia in 2013, out of interest), it’s almost the same list as recycling rates, and GDP per capita.
The data is clear, unless you are a wealthy non-EU nation like Norway, Andorra, or Switzerland, your low GDP correlates with your poor recycling rates.
The EU’s three worst recyclers, and also the three poorest member nations, are the ones who most recently joined it - Romania, Bulgaria, and Croatia. The first 9 members of the EU are all in the top 15 for GDP, and top 20 for recycling. It is all linked.
It’s hard to make solid conclusions based on this data. Being in the EU doesn’t guarantee good recycling rates, and being outside of it doesn’t guarantee bad ones, but the two things do work in tandem. Being part of a group of nations with common targets, accountability, and funding, are things that are truly conducive to recycling rates.
The type of recycling we are seeing in Gaza is something unique, it is war, it is embargos, it is being denied all sorts of rights and materials. They have no collaboration, no competition, no investment, no strategy, and very little hope. Their recycling rate is an estimated 4%, but they are recycling bomb wreckages, and we can’t even recycle our plastic bags.