Re-directing Arrows: Recycling Campaigns and Conservationist Narratives

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People imagine that their recycled plastic is shipped to a recycling plant, melted down and poured into molds to create a basically identical product. That is, after all, what the three arrows on the recycling bin imply. Recycling campaigns, now fairly ubiquitous in North America, advertise sustainability as a closed-loop system that hinges upon citizen’s active participation to ensure green results for future generations. Yet recycling is frequently “down-cycling” by creating lower-quality products in addition to pollution, toxins, and energy consumption during the process of material transformation. Championing recycling over other models of sustainability supports the consumerist model that creates the need for materials to be recycled in the first place, which is characteristic of Conservationism, one of the two dominant ecological narratives in North America. Conservationist solutions have a utilitarian approach that focus on the stabilization of resource use so future generations can continue the lifestyle of the proceeding generation. In Conservationism, ecological issues are not considered systemic, but are attributed to unchecked technological progress and patterns of misuse. Images and symbols used in recycling campaigns imply an assured, conjunctive relationship between recycling and “saving the environment.” Critiquing campaign images by using alternative and marginalized ecological narratives shows imagery dealing with recycling to be a specific form of Conservationist propaganda.


Keywords: Recycling, Consumerism, Visual Culture, Conservationism, Propaganda, Solid Waste Management, Sustainability
Stream: Cultural Sustainability
Presentation Type: Virtual Presentation in English
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Max Liboiron

Graduate Student, Steinhardt School of Education, New York University
New York, New York, USA

Max Liboiron grew up on a self-sustaining farm in northern Canada in a mixed-race and special needs adoptive family. Her understanding of sustainable personal and environmental relationships was formed within this context and has been influential in both her early studies in biology and her more topical inquiries in art. Now living in New York, she brings the ideas, skills, and points of view she developed in the north to her art and to local instances of “nature.” Max Liboiron holds an MFA and a certificate in cultural studies from the State University of New York at Stony Brook and BFA with Distinction from Mount Allison University in New Brunswick, Canada. She is currently pursuing a PhD at New York University in Visual Culture and environmentalism.

Ref: S08P0062