ecycling is an industry. You would be hard pressed to find anyone being really shocked by such a statement. Recycling’s systemic problem of high energy consumption and the need for significant amounts of virgin materials (MacBride 2013) as well as media coverage on the recycling myth support this attitude. Paradoxically though, the wider public still recognizes the famous three arrows as representing a green strategy of saving both natural resources and energy and thereby benefitting the environment. Most strikingly, recycling is not only recognized but seemingly built upon a broad societal consensus across different political backgrounds (see e.g. Crunden 2021). And since recycling allows day-to-day actions on a low-threshold basis, it is regularly perceived as a proven first step, to tackle the evolving planetary waste crisis.

All in all this phenomenon could be described and criticized as a prime example of maintaining economic growth under the condition of environmental and climate protection or simply as a particular form of green growth, a project of “ecological modernization” (Brand/Wissen 2012: 552) and a lucid case of “modernity reinforcing itself by modernization” (Jacobsen/Tristl 2024) – eventually only serving the needs of industry without affecting carbon emissions or the continued wasting of the planet at all. It perfectly represents what Swyngedouw calls the “techno-managerial eco-consensus”, claiming for radical change, but still remaining “within the contours of the existing state of the situation (…) so that nothing really has to change!” (2011: 264). However convincing this perspective may be from a theoretical point of view, the question remains how this paradox is accomplished in concrete terms. Rather than challenging this perspective of ecological modernization, I wonder what actually happens when current modes of production and consumption are reinforced. How, where and when does it take place? How is the reinforcement put into work? How does it come to be? In other words: How do you encounter radical change without real change in everyday life? Is it even visible?

A brief look over to the region of Leipzig may help to address these questions, since the story of recycling as modernization of modernity plays out in a nutshell there. At the end of 2022, the British recycling company Mura Technologies and US petrochem giant DOW agreed to invest in what once will be Europe’s largest chemical recycling plant for processing plastic waste. It is expected to go into operation in 2025 in Böhlen near Leipzig/Saxony as a flagship, to be followed by the construction of several more plants in Europe and the USA by 2030 (DOW investors 2022). The great importance of the plant is also emphasized by DOW itself in that it promotes the plant as one of “six major projects that deliver solutions and advance the circular economy” (DOW corporate n.d.). By looking closely at this technological innovation and its territorial and temporal relations, I will sketch out how the production of virgin plastics is actually fueled while purporting a radical transformation to a circular economy.


Recent plastic recycling (mostly mechanical recycling) is an energy and labor intensive technology. Recyclables must be sorted and decontaminated before being further processed by melting the sorted polymers and churning out pre-production pellets consisting of secondary plastics. This kind of recycling produces “downcycled” plastics of lower quality and poorer performance than virgin plastics and cannot be recycled repeatedly. As opposed to that, chemical recycling (technical term: “hydrothermal processing”) represents a major innovation and qualitative shift in recycling. According to DOW this technology offers no less than “the scale to solve the plastic issue” (DOW investors 2022) – so, how does it work in brief? Basically put, a soup of mixed polymers and water is cooked under high temperature and pressure as to decompose the polymer structure on the molecular level, thereby re-extracting new synthetic naphtha. Naphtha is the basic feedstock for lot of petrochemical products – such as plastics – and otherwise mostly derived from petrol.  So, at that point the naphtha can re-enter the regular petrochemical production-line in the cracker, the heart and starting point of any petrochemical synthetization process (Altman 2021; for an elaborated overview on steam cracking see Posch 2011, 23-24). Thus, this technological innovation not only incrementally changes recycling processes, but represents a complete makeover by creating an additional source of crude oil.

What sounds fascinating in terms of the chemical processes involved turns out as an issue when chemical recycling is featured as a central element of the circular economy under the condition of privately owned technology in recent capitalism. Helpful in this respect is the theoretical lens of ANT and material semiotics more generally, which reject the notion of technology as a neutral tool, instead conceptualizing it as social agent and complicit matter (Latour 1996, Law 2008). This allows to understand technology as a crucial component in configuring rather exclusive versions of the circular economy. Due to their complexity, specialization and restricted availability, facilities as the above mentioned are excluding anyone from circularity without the respective financial means and access to real estate. Strategies of re-use and repair in turn are a much more inclusive way of securing circularity. Aiming at the extension of the use-value of things – as opposed to creating new exchange-value – these strategies can be realized through extended producer responsibility and granting consumers more rights to repair their own devices. Instead of blaming recycling as naïve solutionism, the key argument here is the (restricted) accessibility of circular economies. Despite its massive downsides in terms of pollution and environmental justice issues the technology is complicit in the further commodification and enclosure of recycling.

From this angle, the functionally linked hydrothermal unit and the cracker reflect the economic integration of recycling circuit and linear production of petro-commodities, eventually forming just an alternative plastic production by other means against the backdrop of growth-oriented economy. These close, functional ties require the proximity of primary production and recycling, hence territory and territorial relations play a major role in constituting and enabling the aforementioned technologies of  recycling.

BUNA-Plant, 1990 (IMAGO / Sven Simon)

BUNA-Plant, 2009 (Joeb07, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

The BUNA-plant in Schkopau (1990 and 2009), reflecting the historical continuity of plastic production in “Mitteldeutsches Chemiedreieck”. The BUNA-plant in Schkopau, some 20 miles away from Böhlen, formerly producing “Plaste & Elaste”, today belonging to DOW’s subsidiary DOW Olefinverbund. Its locations Schkopau, Leuna, Böhlen are linked by pipelines, enabling direct connection between the planned recycling plant and the cracker in Böhlen and the plastics synthetization in Schkopau and Leuna.


Technologies of recycling like the above mentioned not only presume space for the concrete plants, but also a territory that provides the particular demands of chemical synthetization. It is not by chance that the plant is sited in Böhlen, since the existing local relations are referred to as essential for the expected success of technology. Apart from the fact that DOW is already located there, the region belongs to a hotspot of chemical industry, known as “Mitteldeutsches Chemie-Dreieck”, whose meaning goes wide beyond just its economic force. Given its longstanding history the chemical industry inscribed itself in the region – be it in the form of decades of pollution and burdening of soil, air, water and bodies or in the deeply rooted identification due to famous inventions as the first synthetic fiber or last not least generations working in the plants of Leuna and the like. In sum, this is more than just a soft location factor, but a condition which plays a crucial role in the local/regional acceptance of new technologies and eventually the construction of new industrial facilities.

Indirectly, however, the access to land reaches far beyond the region, in that recycling plastics does not subsidize the production of virgin plastics but complements it. MacBride (2019) underlines this connection by referring to both empirical evidence and theoretical consideration: while on the one hand material stocks and flows in recycling show that even given high recycling rate the production of virgin materials still increases, theoretical recurse on rebound effects on the other hand allow to make sense of this connection. Instead of crowding out extractivist modes of production and the land-affording practices going along with it, these are rather supported by recycling. This supportive character becomes even clearer, when considering the temporal dimensions of recycling.


A very basic fact is that industrial recycling is an ex-post intervention, meaning that it only kicks in after new products are already produced. It is a technique which has an interest in disposed of plastics as the re-source of value extraction, which is perfectly illustrated by “Duale System Deutschland”: Producers of packaged goods pay for the service of the collection of the used packages (recyclables), which then turns out as a sort of “license to waste”, the costs of which can be re-integrated in the product price so the consumer ultimately pays the bill. Consumers in turn rely on a functioning recycling infrastructure, allowing for packaging wastes to supposedly go “away”. This double function seems profane, but it matters since it consequently signals both producers and consumers that it is okay to waste. Ultimately, an incentive to avoid disposal is missed on both sides of the market. Since the DOW facility even aims at processing volumes of unsorted, contaminated plastics, continued disposal could only gain legitimacy.

Wheely bin (colloquial: “Gelbe Tonne”), providing an “away” for packaging waste (author’s photograph)

While the ability to process even different sorts and qualities of plastics promises an increased flexibility in terms of needed recyclables, the quantities of plastics required to feed the facilities are anything but flexible. Complex and specialized facilities like modern recycling plants are cost-intensive investment/assets and are not put in place in order to recycle just a few plastic bottles – they need to run for many decades to payout, and during this time they need guaranteed amounts of plastic waste to digest. Alexander (2016) has described this issue by recurring on waste to energy plants, which only work under the premise of long term contracts that guarantee a certain amount of waste – probably in the form of standardized ‘ecoballe’ (Schlitz et al. 2024). Similar ‘lock-in effects’ have been also described with regard to infrastructures of incineration (Corvellec et al. 2013). Eventually, such effects lead to a somehow contradictive balance in which waste production is stabilized through its efforts to eliminate it, or to the need for ‘more waste please’ (Alexander 2016).  

Planting Plastics vs the Right to Refuse Throwing Away

These observations highlight recycling as the dominant approach in circular economy, transcending technology, culture, economy and everyday life with its focus on disposables as the main intervention point. The very items are collected, sorted, being managed, processed and so on, while at the same time presuming their production in the first place. As a result, disposability itself stays largely unaffected and is even maintained, ensuring the flourishing of future plastic markets (Liboiron and Lepawsky 2022). Correspondingly, policies and regulations as the right to repair, reuse or reduce schemes as opposed to recycling schemes are – though gaining attention – still less established in recent circular economy and still contested by companies by referring to safety and security risks. As long as industrial recycling stays dominant in conceptions of the circular economy at the expense of more participative elements of circularity, the planting of plastics (and other disposables) is its straightforward consequence.

“Plastic free Penzance” calls for reducing and avoiding plastic waste (author’s photograph)

This form of modernization of modernity is not modern in a progressive sense, as the circular economy promotes a very early conception of conservative environmentalism, which does not hide its aspiration to sustain prolonged extraction (see also Farber 2017, Wills 2019). However, the positive flip side is that circularity is not an ecomodernist deadlock as a matter of fact, but contestable. A circular economy as a powerful tool towards real transformation is not utopian and would not even take that much. Key to it would be conceptual accuracy and the refusal of every attempt to reduce it to a recycling economy, as to ensure more participative approaches to circularity. Put in concrete terms: The first step in tackling the waste crisis is not taken by putting a wrapper or a worn out device in the right bin but in refusing to being forced to throw-away in the first place.

Funding note:

Partially funded by the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) – 503738037 (Partly own funds).


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Yusif Idies is born and raised in Frankfurt/M, and trained as geographer. He is currently working at Münster University, where his research focuses on critical approaches to sustainability, especially geographies and economies of waste disposal.