Why Recycling is NOT the Answer

I am very passionate about recycling. Where I live now, I conveniently have cardboard and single-stream recycling containers to use, and they are included with my neighborhood’s waste removal. The bins even have clearly marked labels to remind everyone which items are (or are not) acceptable to be processed this way.

When I lived in Utah a couple years back, I paid an extra fee to have a recycling can. Before that, to really skimp on that extra ten-ish dollars a month, I would save up all our recycling items until they were overflowing our bin, then take them to a free community drop off for recycling. But surprisingly, no glass was allowed there (or even in my later household recycling can). Glass had to be dropped off at a separate specific site, for the entire city, else it would just go into the trash. A ton of glass must have been thrown away, which breaks my heart even more now that I’ve learned it’s 100% recyclable. Even though my car would go clinking through town with a box full of jars, I’d hold onto them until I was passing near this special recycling spot, and drop them off. The big perk: I got to therapeutically smash each jar or bottle as I tossed them in. Woohoo for legitimately breaking stuff!

This being said, one of the biggest practices I want to change is how I, and my family, use things. Recycling, as helpful as it is for preserving resources and keeping things out of an eternal landfill, still has an environmental cost.

It takes energy to process and repurpose materials. For some items (plastic and paper products) there is a limit to how many times or ways they can be recycled, as shared here on Earth 911. So choose metal and glass items over plastic and paper options when you can!

Does recycling generally require less energy than processing normal garbage? According to the American Geosciences Institute, it sure does!

However, even with thoughtful sorting and preparation of recycling materials, what’s the point if it all goes to an incinerator or landfill anyway?

“WHAT?? Why would that happen??” The gut-wrenching answer is that other countries don’t want to deal with our waste anymore (!?!). The United States has relied heavily on China to buy its excess paper and plastic, turn them into new secondary materials (boxes, napkins, clothing, park benches, and the like), and then sell it back to us. But in 2019, China decided to limit what items they accept. This article in The Atlantic lays out beautifully how this is impacting communities’ waste management here, but more importantly, how our lackadaisacal approach to recycling has played a part in its ineffective implementation. I’m not going to lie: reading this article makes me feel overwhelmed and a bit hopeless. It forces us to acknowledge the reality that even when we recyclable materials, it still has an environmental cost.

The option that appears to be better than recycling is reducing. You could encourage your work or community center to decrease paper use and focus on providing information digitally. Take a look at your shopping choices and try to notice items you can make from scratch (using bulk items, how fun!) instead of buy pre-packaged each time.

Or strive for an even better option: refusing. (This idea for a fourth “r” in addtion to the classic “reduce, reuse, recycle” motto also comes from the above Atlantic article by Alana Semuels). Be the greenest person around: Turn down the offered plastic water bottle, and have your reusuable one with you AT ALL TIMES. Dare to bring your own to-go cups and containers when you eat out. Instead of taking a flyer, snap a quick photo with your phone or look it up online later. There are so many small ways to make an impact!

This brings up another question: will there always be items that can’t be practically produced in reusable containers? I think at this point, in western culture (and in most parts of the developed world), it’s not likely to change soon. But there are so many incredible and sustainable ideas popping up, so we need to do what we can to (1) raise awareness of these options, (2) choose to use these in our own homes, businesses, and communities, and (3) let (our producers?) know that we prefer to support businesses who act in truly sustainable ways.

So as we move forward, try to notice the items that quickly move through your life and into the waste bin. In the past, it’s been easier for me to recycle things rather than just throw them away. After all, recycling was a better, a “greener” choice, right? It wouldn’t be a waste – it was going to be reborn into something new and useful! But that’s not such a sure thing anymore. Even if we clean and recycle everything we possibly can, there’s a glut of excess going in without an efficient and certain renewal. So let’s move forward with awareness and a determination to change our habits, even with the smallest of changes to start.

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