Re-directing Arrows: Recycling Campaigns and Conservationist Narratives
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
Graduate Student, Steinhardt School of Education, New York University