The Truth About Recycling You Probably Don't Want to Hear

My attitude towards buying things with packaging used to be "well, at least I can recycle it". For some time now, I've been trying to break the habit of relying on recycling because I know there are better choices I can be making. 

Our need to consume far exceeds our country's capacity to recycle. At the start, recycling was a perfect alternative--taking the materials we cannot use or don't want, that are taking up space in our landfills, and turning them into materials to be used again. The cycle continues and we get to keep consuming and not feel bad about it, and corporations get to keep producing things we love to consume.

Seemingly a perfect system, right? Well, not quite...

What we really need is a whole-system overhaul. Recycling is an answer but it is not, and should not, be the only one. We need major source reduction (minimizing the need for something at the start) and a circular economy (minimize waste and focus on regenerative/restorative practices). 

Let me tell you why. 

Not everything we recycle gets recycled

As of 2015, only 9% of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic ever produced has been recycled. This research only focused on our plastic waste (arguably more detrimental than other materials) and does not include other recyclables like metal, paper, and glass. With the restrictive ban on recyclables put in place by China in 2018, it's estimated that 111 million metric tons of plastic alone will be displaced by 2030.

It costs money to recycle materials, and when there is little to no demand for recycled materials, it's more cost-effective to dump those materials into the landfill or incinerate them. When there is a demand, the cost of labor needed to sort through our poorly washed and separated recyclables is also a tremendous one. So, the solution for some time was to send much of our recyclables to China, where the cost of labor is cheap and the demand for recycled materials is high. Since 1992, China has imported 45% of the world's plastic waste

China's 2018 ban on the import of recyclables (mostly plastics and paper) was an effort to minimize the overwhelming amount of contaminated material arriving at their facilities. Other countries were creating a secondary environmental issue for them. In just over a year's time, plastic imports to China have decreased by 99% and paper imports by about a third

In the US, many local governments have stopped their recycling programs or have turned to incinerating their collected recyclables. One positive outcome of this ban would be that local governments now have a reason to pay more attention to their recycling programs.

Not everything can be recycled more than once

Even if our recycling program is still in place, glass jars and soda cans might have a chance of being recycled again; but our plastic bottles or cardboard boxs not so much. 

Glass, aluminum, and metals are awesome materials in that they can be recycled back to their original form over and over. However, paper can only be recycled five to seven times before it's turned into pulp for newspaper/egg cartons.  When plastic is recycled, it loses its integrity and can only be recycled back to its original form once or twice (depending on the type). That item is then "downcycled" into something that will be very difficult to recycle in the future, if at all.

Virgin material is still used

There's no doubt, in my mind at least, that using recycled material is the preferred method of manufacturing compared to extracting new, virgin materials. This study found that to make certain products of recycled materials, it took 11.4 million Btus (British thermal unit) compared to 25.7 million Btus to make the same products with virgin material.

The fact of the matter is though, virgin materials are still being extracted to make new products. As the price of recycled material increases, the demand shifts towards virgin material. With the recycling ban in China, it's going to make more economic sense for manufacturers to buy virgin material as long as the demand for those products remains.

What we can do as consumers

As consumers, we certainly have the power to vote with our wallets. While I believe manufacturers should be held more responsible for the waste they produce, we can do our part by minimizing the demand for their products.

Here are some things we can do to reduce our reliance on recycling:

  • Use and reuse what we have at home before buying
  • Upcycle our recyclables for use around the home
  • Buy items that are more likely to be recycled at the end of their life (metal and glass)
  • Buy from a second-hand store
  • Refuse to buy products that come with excessive packaging
  • Avoid online shopping whenever possible (to have more control over packaging)
  • Reduce reduce reduce our need to consume!


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