Recycling is NOT The Answer

Recycling, separated into paper bags and blue bins
Image by GreenStar from Pixabay

I used to be an avid believer in recycling. When I was 11, my family began collecting and taking our recycling to the local center. Soon after, the county we lived in passed a recycling ordinance. I was hooked. I even wrote a paper in 9th grade about landfills and recycling, citing a study about mining landfills for recycling and resources that I’d found inspiring.1

Since then I’ve dutifully washed, separated, and toted my recycling, no matter where I’ve resided. If there was no recycling service, I tracked down the recycling centers. At parties or on vacations where recycling wasn’t available, I carted my recyclables all the way home so that I could recycle them. I have spent a great deal of time over my life teaching and educating others on the how’s and why’s of recycling.

Imagine my disappointment just a few years ago when I discovered that only 9% of plastics are recycled.

“Recycling is great, but unfortunately it is not enough. There’s simply too much recycling to process, and we’re still consuming way too many resources.” -Kathryn Kellogg, 101 Ways To Go Zero Waste

Steel and aluminum recycling bales, compacted and very colorful.
Compacted steel and aluminum recycling bales. Photo by Steven Penton on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

The Notion of Recycling is Misleading

The reason that recycling is NOT the sole solution to our waste problem is the misconception that it IS the sole solution to our waste problem.

Many well-meaning people toss their once-used plastic bottle or container into a blue bin somewhere and think that they’ve done their part. But most do not know the real impact of what they are doing. This is because we’ve been fed the myth of recycling for decades. Plastic manufacturers carefully curated the message that we can use all of the plastic we want to because we can just recycle it. That’s a very convenient notion but not at all how it works.

Recycling actually increases consumption, because it gives consumers a false sense of taking care of the environment and doing the right thing. The fact that we think we can recycle something often drives our purchases. It is acceptable to us to buy single-serve plastic yogurt cups and plastic single drink bottles because we can justify the waste those things create with recycling. We pass these notions on to our children as well.

Additionally, companies push these falsehoods through marketing. They want us to think their products are recyclable or sustainable in some way, in order to drive up sales. Some will go as far as ‘greenwashing‘ their products.

“If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment.” -Larry Thomas, former head of Society of the Plastics Industry2

Bales of contaminated platic bottles on a pallet.
Photo by recycleharmony on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Recycling Myths

There are many recycling myths! Here are just a few of them.

An Endless Loop

First, recycling is not a clean, closed, endless loop where everything that goes in is remade and reused. Materials, especially plastics, degrade in quality. Many plastics are not recycled at all. Since plastics are polymers mixed with chemical additives, plastic products are typically downcycled. Downcycling means made into a lower-quality plastic. Therefore, new plastic from petroleum is often preferred by manufacturers in order to keep making equivalent-quality plastic products. Further, new plastic is often cheaper than recycled. “The current cost of virgin plastic nurdles is much cheaper than the cost of recycled plastic nurdles, so it doesn’t make economic sense to purchase recycled plastic – and much of our carefully sorted plastic ends up stuck in a landfill, incinerated, or shipped abroad.”3

So a plastic water bottle is not remade into another plastic water bottle. It may be downcycled into carpeting or synthetic fabric. After an item outlives its use as a lesser type of plastic container, carpet, or plastic lumber, it is still landfilled. So while technically recycled (downcycled) one time, it is not an endless loop of the same materials being used over and over again.

Recycled content

Further on the myth of reusing materials, have you ever noticed on something you purchased has a label that reads “made from 45% post-consumer” waste/content/plastics? This simply means that 45% of the product or packaging is made from recycled materials. While 100% post-consumer exists, most often, virgin materials must be mixed in with recycled materials to maintain a product’s durability. This is especially true with plastics, paper, and cardboard.

Recycling diverts waste from landfills

Another myth is that recycling automatically diverts waste from landfills. This is just not true. Many recyclables end up in landfills if recycling is contaminated. Contamination is simply the mixing of recyclables with dirty items and non-recyclables. The average resident may not want to spend time cleaning their recyclables or may not know it is necessary. They may not understand what is and is not accepted in their local recycling. They may also be “wish-cycling,” which is when someone attempts to recycle something they think should be recycled, like plastic bags, which are not recyclable. Plastic bags can get tangled in the machinery, and it contaminates the end product of recyclables. If recyclables have too many contaminates, or non-recyclable items, those bales are likely to be landfilled (or even incinerated) rather than sold to a company that will reuse them.

If it is collected, then it is recycled

Just because you put it in a blue bin that “accepts” something does not automatically mean those materials are recycled.

Plastics #3-#7 are often collected in municipalities across the country but they are sent to landfills or are incinerated. Some still export their mixed plastics to other countries. But collecting mixed plastics through single-stream recycling is a big part of the problem. “Acceptance of such a plastic item at a [Materials Recovery Facility (MRF)] alone is not sufficient and reasonable assurance to a customer that it will be manufactured into another item, as required by the FTC…Companies cannot legitimately place recycle symbols or “Check Locally” text on products made from plastics #3-7 because MRFs nationwide cannot assure consumers that valueless plastics #3-7 bales will actually be bought and recycled into a new product.”4

“Acceptance by a [Materials Recovery Facility] is Not Proof of Recycling.”5

Bird's eye view of paper bales at a recycling center.
Aerial view of paper bales at a recycling center. Image by WFranz from Pixabay.

Volume

The amount of waste and “recycling” humans create is ridiculous, and most people really don’t have any idea about the total volume. Waste and recycling go into a bin and we don’t think about it again. This further creates misconceptions surrounding recycling simply because we don’t understand the volumes of waste we create. If you combined the waste from just you and your neighbors, how much waste is that? Now imagine the amount from your entire neighborhood, city, state, and then nation.

The EPA estimates that of the 292.4 million tons of municipal solid waste (aka trash) generated in the U.S., approximately 69 million tons were recycled.6

Of this, 35,680,000 tons were plastic. Thus, an 800-pound bale of PET would be roughly 18,400 of the 16-ounce PET Bottles.7 Other estimates vary slightly, depending on the size and actual weight of each individual plastic bottle. Now I am not a mathematician. But if all plastics from the 35 million tons were plastic PET bottles, and one ton weighs 2,000 pounds, that would mean there are about 46,000 plastic bottles per ton. Then multiply 35,680,000 by 46,000, and that equals 1,641,280,000,000 individual plastic bottles. And that’s just plastics from one year!

A woman at the foot of a hill of plastic bottles, sorting recycling in Pakistan.
A woman scavenges for survival in a mountain of plastic waste, Pakistan. Photo by baselactionnetwork on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Recycling is Important

Extracting natural resources is terrible for the environment, human health, wildlife, and directly affects climate change. Preventing the extraction of virgin materials is important, especially when it comes to fossil fuels. Both extracting and burning fossil fuels greatly contribute to global warming.

“Recycling consistently requires less resources and produces fewer greenhouse gases (GHGs) than production of new materials,” wrote Beth Porter.8 For example, recycling aluminum uses 95% less energy than extraction. Almost 75% of all aluminum that has ever been produced is still in use. Paper has a recycling rate of approximately 68.2% (in 2018), the highest compared to other materials in municipal solid waste.9

Plastic recycling bales, colored and white/clear items.
Bales of plastic ready for shipping. Photo by Larry Koester on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0)

The Plastics Market

“Recycling depends on the idea that the cost of collecting and sorting certain materials is rational because somebody will want to buy them to make something else. In reality, many plastics have no such market.”-The State of Recycling National Survey, U.S. PIRG Education Fund10

Plastic production is complex and chemical. Worse, “most plastic is derived from oil drilling and/or fracking. Ethane cracker facilities turn ethane into ethylene, a building block of most common plastics.” We know that the oil industry, gas processing facilities, and ethane crackers are all associated with climate change and environmental problems.11 “The massive expansion of plastic production in the U.S., fueled by at least $200 billion of investment in 340 petrochemical projects, is flooding the market and causing polyethylene [recycling] prices to decline to historic lows – below prices last seen during the 2008 financial crisis.”12

Since there is little market for recycled plastics, it exacerbates the waste crisis. Recycled plastic must be given some kind of economic value so that collecting it for recycling has a financial incentive.13

“The simple fact is, there is just too much plastic — and too many different types of plastics — being produced; and there exist few, if any, viable end markets for the material. Which makes reuse impossible.”14

Stacked bales of recycling from a distance, inside the Strategic Materials recycling plant in South Windsor, Connecticut.
Bales of recycling at the Strategic Materials recycling plant in South Windsor, Connecticut. Photo by CT Senate Republicans on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

What Can You do?

“Somewhere along the way, key parts of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra got lost. We have lost track of reducing and reusing.”15

PLEASE RECYCLE! This post is not intended to discourage you from recycling.

But recycling is not the answer to our waste crisis.

We must restructure the way we think about trash. We must change our goals surrounding waste. The goals should focus on refusing, reducing, and reusing long before recycling enters the picture – in that order! If you read my article on how recycling works, you’ll recall that recycling processes are very complex and recycling is easily contaminated.

It is also imperative that we move away from single-use disposables. That alone could help improve pollution, reduce ocean microplastics, and help climate change. Thank you for reading, please share this article and subscribe for future articles!

 

Footnotes:

  1. The article was from an April 1990 issue of Discover Magazine. I put a lot of work into this paper and was enthusiastic about the idea of finding renewable resources and energy extraction from landfills. But I got a 73% with scathing remarks from my Gifted English teacher. “‘Saving the earth’ is pretty melodramatic…garbage will not destroy the planet. Air and water affect our health, old milk bottles don’t.” She further commented that environmentalists “rallying” to recycle landfills was ridiculous. Except it isn’t. If you do an internet search on “digging up recycling from landfills” today, there are hundreds of thousands of results. It saddens and disgusts me almost 3 decades later that the teacher was not only wrong but completely discouraging. This is probably why I set aside environmentalism for the beginning of my adult life, and only just came back around to writing about environmental issues in recent years.
  2. Book, Can I Recycle This?: A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single-Use Plastics, by Jennie Romer, Penguin, New York, 2021.
  3. Book, Can I Recycle This?: A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single-Use Plastics, by Jennie Romer, Penguin, New York, 2021.
  4. Report, “Circular Claims Fall Flat: Comprehensive U.S. Survey of Plastics Recyclability,by John Hocevar, Greenpeace Reports, February 18, 2020.
  5. Report, “Circular Claims Fall Flat: Comprehensive U.S. Survey of Plastics Recyclability,by John Hocevar, Greenpeace Reports, February 18, 2020.
  6. Page, “National Overview: Facts and Figures on Materials, Wastes and Recycling,” Environmental Protection Agency, accessed December 27, 2021.
  7. Page, “PET – Plastic Water / Soda Bottles – By Bale Weights, Size and Recycling Equipment,” Wastecare Corporation, accessed December 27, 2021.
  8. Book, “Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine: Sorting Out the Recycling System,” by Beth Porter, Rowman & Littlefield: Lanham, 2018.
  9. Page, “Paper and Paperboard: material-specific Data,” Environmental Protection Agency, accessed January 1, 2022.
  10. Report, “The State of Recycling National Survey, U.S. PIRG Education Fund, November 14, 2019.
  11. Book, Can I Recycle This?: A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single-Use Plastics, by Jennie Romer, Penguin, New York, 2021.
  12. Report, “Circular Claims Fall Flat: Comprehensive U.S. Survey of Plastics Recyclability,by John Hocevar, Greenpeace Reports, February 18, 2020.
  13. Book, Plastic Soup: An Atlas of Ocean Pollution, by Michiel Roscam Abbing, Island Press: Washington, D.C., 2019.
  14. Article, It is time to cut use of plastics,” by Michael J. Sangiacomo, San Francisco Chronicle, December 24, 2018.
  15. Article, “National Sword,” Episode 341, 99% Invisible, February 12, 2019.

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