I grew up knowing the words to Jack Johnson’s version of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and carrying every plastic bottle I used to the nearest recycling bin. My family emphasized the importance of taking care of the environment and recycling was a way for us to do that. I felt good about myself knowing that recycling would fix our trash problem. I was “saving the planet”. Right…?
Years later, and with a lot more education behind me, I’ve learned more about the recycling system and how it’s not really the save all solution I once was so confident in. Now don’t fret! Recycling is not inherently bad nor should you stop doing it. But, and yes there is a “but”, recycling cannot fix our garbage problem. Let me explain why.
The idea of recycling is great in theory! We take items that we don’t need anymore, process them again, and make them into new items all while avoiding adding them to the landfill. The problem arises when we look more closely at how that process actually happens.
Recycling isn't consistent.
It’s important to mention that only about 35% of recyclable material in the US actually ends up in the recycling system. Even in places where recycling is well set-up and advertised, there are individuals that choose not to use the system for various reasons. Relying on our recycling system hasn’t worked and we can’t expect it to magically become universally popular.
But even if everyone did recycle, that wouldn’t solve all our issues.
Recycling is often down-cycling.
When we put items like plastic bottles in the recycling bin, we assume that our bottle becomes a new bottle which then gets used, recycled, and again created into a new bottle. The cycle should be able to repeat indefinitely. Unfortunately, many items can’t actually be recycled into similar products and are actually downgraded into an item which is not later recyclable. Plastic bottles might be processed into a plastic bench that cannot be recycled at the end of its life again and ends up in a landfill.
As another example, paper can only be recycled on average five to seven times before the fibers holding the paper together end up too weak to bind. Napkins and paper towels are usually papers last stop before they can no longer be recycled. This means that virgin paper and plastic still need to be created and used in order to continue supplying the demand for packaging.
Recycling takes energy.
Taking another look at the process itself, we realize these recycling plants need to run their machinery somehow – using electricity usually generated from coal plants. A lot of energy has already gone into making this product and now additional resources, electricity, and labor is required just to create a lower quality, downgraded product. And until alternative energy options become widely popular and available, all of this will be powered by fossil fuels.
So now what?
Going zero waste focuses on consciously manufacturing, purchasing, and consuming products with their entire life cycle in mind. In order to reduce our reliance on recycling (and landfills), focusing on products with limited or no-packaging is the first step. Buying items in bulk with reusable containers will eliminate a huge quantity of plastic that enters our home and leaves in the trash bin.
Familiarizing yourself with the recycling policies in your city is also important. Make sure that you are not improperly recycling items or sending unnecessary ones to the landfill. Recycling rates vary widely by area and no one guide can explain the types of plastic acceptable in all facilities. By properly recycling, you are reducing the need for additional resources to be spent sorting the items and hauling them back to the landfill.
Try focusing on items that have good recycling rates – such as glass or metal. These items can be recycled many more times than paper or plastic and even indefinitely if properly taken care of during manufacturing!
And please don't stop recycling. Even though recycling isn't the cure, it is a step in the right direction. We want to encourage companies to find more environmentally ways to package their products but throwing our recyclables in the land fill will only lead to more trash. Focus on reducing your recycling by avoiding packaging, not by hiding it in the dumpster. You can start this by doing an audit of your monthly recycling bin! And just as you pick items that don't include trash, research alternatives to the items in your recycling bin!