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:

Recycling: TerraCycle Toys Zero Waste Box

For Christmas, I asked for a TerraCycle Toys Zero Waste box. They’re almost $100, so I didn’t expect that I’d actually get one, but I did (and thank you)!

I was super excited because in 2017 I had signed up for a free broken toy recycling program through TerraCycle, sponsored by Tom’s of Maine. I sent what I had but for the next full year, I saved every broken toy I found. I asked friends to give me their broken toys too. However, Tom’s of Maine stopped sponsoring this program by 2018. I emailed them to ask why, and they responded that they had “decided not to re-run this promotion.”

I was disappointed. By then I had a huge box of broken toys, and I continued to add to the box, refusing to throw them in a landfill. So I added the TerraCycle Toys Zero Waste Box to my Christmas list.

Box of broken toys. I collected and save broken toys for about 20 months. Photo by me.
I collected and save broken toys for about 20 months. Photo by me.

 

Broken toy contents. Photo by me.
Broken toy contents. Photo by me.
Damaged plastic baseball bat. Photo by me..
We had tried to extend the life of this plastic baseball bat by duct taping it. But it was time to let it go. We got this before we understood how acutely broken plastic toys contribute to the waste crisis and ocean pollution. Photo by me.

Receiving my box

The box arrived in a large plastic wrap, which I was able to repurpose as a garbage bag (I stopped buying garbage bags about a year ago, and I’ll be sure to write a separate post on that). This is what the TerraCycle box looks like unassembled:

TerraCycle Toys Zero Waste box. Photo by me.
TerraCycle Toys Zero Waste box. Photo by me.

Since the box is meant to be placed in an area for collection, such as at the office or at a daycare center, it is equipped with handles on the sides, perforations in the top to drop items in, and a plastic bag inside.

I removed the plastic bag because it was preventing me from being able to fit everything (and I did repurpose that bag as well). I asked my husband, who is a master at packing, to assist because I was having trouble fitting everything, including that plastic green bat. We were able to fit 95% of it.

My husband helping me pack the box. Photo by me.
My husband helping me pack the box. Photo by me.
Full TerraCycle box. Photo by me.
We managed to get 95% of it in the box! Photo by me.

The few items that didn’t fit I placed in a bin in my garage, marked “Plastic Recycling.” It contains plastic items that are not normally recyclable. I plan to save up for an All-In-One Zero Waste Box from TerraCycle. Some of those may be recyclable through Hasbro’s new partnership with TerraCycle (see below).

Ready to ship

The whole process was easy, including shipment. I closed up the box and brought it to FedEx. The purchase of the box includes the cost of shipping and comes with the label already on it. So I dropped it off at FedEx! It felt good to ship those items off after having collected and saved them for so long.

Thoughts on TerraCycle

I admire this company, their mission, and their founder. I like that they take non-recyclable items and make them into cool, useful, new products. I am grateful that they are creating great, visionary, and intelligent solutions!

Even better is that they don’t ship their items overseas for recycling. It’s all done here in the United States.

While TerraCycle is only a small percentage of recycling options, you can purchase your own zero waste boxes on their website. There are many types and sizes available. It is costly, but sometimes we have to pay now, or really pay later. Remember, we can all be the change in small ways, and they do matter.

You can also participate in their free programs by signing up through their website. I’ve participated in several of the free programs including contact lens product recycling; Brita filter recycling; and oral care products recycling. I had to save those things up for a long time, but I have a designated shelf in my garage for such items. I label bins with the name of the recycling or donation program. You can make a designated space too!

Image of my designated shelf for recycling items. Photo by me.
My designated “transient” shelf in the garage. I collect items I can recycle or donate locally until I have enough to take or ship. In this image, there are a few unlabeled bins but they are all in use now. I’ve added a place for thrift store donations, the used book store, and a couple of TerraCycle programs. Photo by me.

Hasbro & TerraCycle

After I received my box, I discovered that Hasbro now has a partnership with TerraCycle to offer free broken toy recycling. I’m glad, but they only accept Hasbro brands. I imagine that this is to create brand loyalty with Hasbro. I’d much rather them accept all broken toys just to do the right thing environmentally.

Sometimes when you find broken pieces of a toy it’s hard to tell what toy it came from, much less what brand it is. In their FAQ section, it does state that “if you are unsure [of the brand] we will accept other toys and games.” This might be a good option in the future. I signed up for it today, so it will be a while before I collect enough Hasbro items to send. I’ll be sure to update this post!

But recycling is not the answer

It helps, sure, but Refusing certain products made of plastic and/or sold in plastic packaging is the key. We all must refuse these items, reduce the use of what we cannot refuse, and then recycle. So recycling should be the third option.

Only 9% of our plastics are actually recycled! That means 91% of our plastics are NOT recycled.

I love TerraCycle because it is a step in the right direction. However, using their programs does not discourage consumers from buying plastic products. In turn, it does not send the message to the corporations that they need to alter their plastic production and packaging.

So keep trying to REFUSE. Use TerraCycle and similar programs when you can’t refuse.

The Earth is beautiful. Let's keep it that way, Image by Free-Photos on Pixabay.
Earth is beautiful. Let’s keep it that way, Image by Free-Photos on Pixabay.

I hope this was informative and I would love to hear about your experiences with TerraCycle recycling or how you’ve stopped buying certain plastic items. Thanks for reading!

This post does not contain any affiliate links nor was I paid to review TerraCycle products.

Book Review: “You Wouldn’t Want to Live Without Plastic!”

 

I love books and love sharing books with my son. However, once in a while, we come across a book that offers poor or inaccurate information. This book is one of those. I like to focus on positive reviews, but I feel reviewing this book is important for people to be aware of because it has a lot of misleading information. This is only my opinion.

You Wouldn't Want to Live Without Plastic! book cover.

We know that while there are a few really great uses for plastic in the world, such as plastic heart valves, most plastics are wasteful, full of toxins, and are not reusable. Unfortunately, we humans have gone overboard on plastic consumption and waste, which is why we have to fight so hard to reverse the damage now.

The Good

The book provides a concise history of plastic development and manufacturing, which is helpful for the recommended age range of 8-12 years. The story explains that post-1950s was “the beginning of our ‘throwaway’ lifestyle. Instead of repairing something, we throw it away and buy something new to replace it.” Here is a missed opportunity to express that that is the wrong thing to do environmentally.

The story mentions that certain types of plastics can be used to make strong materials for safety. These include clothing to protect firefighters, race car drivers, and helmets for sports and biking/motorcycling. Some plastic is even made fireproof. As I said, plastics do have their place, sometimes.

The book indicates that there are problems with plastic, but not until toward the end of the story. It mentions that animals ingest plastics and that plastics are polluting the ocean. It offers solutions such as recycling and incineration. But as we know, only about 9% of plastics are actually recycled. Incineration pollutes the air with toxic chemicals released from plastics during burning.

Some extra facts were listed at the end of the book. One of them, which I feel should have been at the beginning or in the part about the future, was: “Plastic takes so long to break down that nearly every piece of plastic ever made still exists today.” That’s exactly why we have problems now.

Beach pollution in the Dominican Republic, mostly plastic. Photo by Dustan Woodhouse on Unsplash.
Beach pollution in the Dominican Republic, mostly plastic. Photo by Dustan Woodhouse on Unsplash.

The Bad

Since we have such a problem pollution problem now, authors have the opportunity to teach children to look for alternatives in the future. Unfortunately, the majority of the book promotes plastic as a good resource that we NEED. It explains the different methods of plastic production, and how plastic begins as nurdles, although they didn’t use that term. It did not mention the various chemical compositions of plastic, or that they can be toxic to human health.

For example, the book mentions twice that plastic is better for toys because plastic is safer and more durable. Perhaps more durable than glass or porcelain in the hands of a child, but not more durable than metal or wood. And safer is not always true. If you compare it to toys made from lead, yes, because lead is highly poisonous. But we also know that chemicals like phthalates and BPA are found in many plastic toys and infant items. There are other chemicals in plastics that we don’t know the long-term effects of yet.

Another example indicates that synthetic clothing is better because those will not shrink like clothes made from natural fibers. True that they may not shrink, but we know that microfibers from washing synthetic clothing are in our rivers, lakes, and oceans. Clothing made from natural fibers is best.

Under a subheading entitled Looking Into the Future: “Most plastics are made from chemicals that come from oil, but oil causes pollution, and it will run out one day. Don’t worry, you won’t have to do without plastic. Future plastics will probably be made from natural materials…” called bioplastics.

If it were that easy, why haven’t we been doing that all along?

The Awful

There were a few parts in this book that I think contain extremely misleading information. One example is that the book suggests that plastic home items, such as doors and windows, are better because they last longer than wood. But sometimes those products contain chemicals banned in the State of California, known as Proposition 65. That legislation requires labeling of such materials now, thankfully, as they have been tied to a number of diseases and cancer.

Here is another example:

If it weren’t for plastic, you’d have to work a lot harder at home…Modern nonstick saucepans are easier to clean than old iron or enamel pans.

Non-stick pans, particularly Teflon, contained dangerous toxins for decades. Those toxins have been linked to thyroid disorders, chronic kidney disease, liver disease, birth defects, and testicular cancer. Only in recent years has that chemical been removed from Teflon, and I’m not convinced that the replacement chemicals in relation to human health have been studied thoroughly. Further, who knows what’s in the non-brand versions of Teflon cookware.

My last example is when the book mentions that credit cards, first issued in the 1950s, are made of plastic. “These plastic cards make it easier for people to buy new products from stores.” Oh my, that is Just. So. Wrong. No, credit cards delude people into buying stuff they don’t need and going into debt. Dave Ramsey and like-minded financial experts would probably drop their jaws if they saw that sentence. I don’t like being so critical, but talk about sending the wrong message to our children!

Photo of credit card. Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.
Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash.

The right messages

Plastic is not evil, but the way we use it and waste it is. If we want to protect our children, our health, and our environment, we’ve got great changes ahead of us to make. So let’s stick to books that teach our children the right messages about health and the environment.

I hope this was helpful. Thank you for reading!

This post does not contain any affiliate links.

Support “The Story of Plastic”

Rubber duckies are actually made of plastic. Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash
Rubber duckies are actually made of plastic. Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

Have you ever heard of The Story of Stuff? It’s a 20-minute film that is “a fast-paced, fact-filled explanation of the consumerist economy.” It began with the writer and the founder of The Story of Stuff Project, Annie Leonard. She’s an amazing person and a leader in environmental and social issues. It is 100% worth your time to watch, I promise!

The Story of Story Project has since come out with more than a dozen high-quality short documentary films that explain the relationship between consumer products and environmental problems. But their newest one is really exciting!!! It’s called…

The Story of Plastic

“These days, more and more of our Stuff is being made from one very problematic material: plastic.” They want to tell the hidden stories surrounding plastic. The production, the pollution, the health hazards. This is their first feature-length film. Here’s a trailer for their film:

Do we need another film about plastic?

Yes, we do. There aren’t enough of them. The ones that do exist are really good and the message is getting out, but we need even more people to hear and see and understand the message: Plastic is ruining our environment, poisoning us (cancer, endocrine and thyroid diseases, etc.), and littering our landscape. The Earth is SO Beautiful – don’t we want it to stay that way?

And recycling is not the answer because only 9% of our plastic is actually getting recycled! That means 91% is ending up in landfills, the ocean, the rivers and lakes, beaches, parks, and our neighborhoods. It even ends up in our food and water that we drink.

plastic waste environment, Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash
Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

The Story of Stuff Project is fundraising to complete this project. Please help me support this worthy cause. They are asking people to become “a Plastic Insider by starting a recurring monthly donation supporting The Story of Plastic production fund today.” There are insider perks: your name will be in the credits of the film and you gain access to behind the scenes videos. Here’s a video of supporters who spend their lives on a sailboat:

I signed up as a monthly, recurring donor today. Can you help too? You can also make a one-time donation in any amount you’d like. And if you’re really ambitious, you can create your own Facebook fundraiser!

“The Story of Plastic isn’t just a movie. It’s a call to action.”

Are you as excited about this film as I am? Leave a comment below! Thank you for reading.

Update 04/30/2020: This film has been released! It’s available on amazon.com and other places listed on the Story of Plastic’s website. I can’t wait to watch it!