Why recycling isn’t going to save the planet

Why recycling isn’t going to save the planet
8 Minute Read

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.


We’ve all heard this phrase before, but why is it that we’ve only ever put the last step into action? Probably because recycling is easier than actually changing our habits.

I’ve been recycling ever since I moved to the US. And a few years ago, after bagging up all the recyclables in my apartment (created by 4 roommates), I was in awe at how much we had amassed in just one week. It was great that these items were not going to the landfill, but the sheer amount of recyclables blew me away. At the end of the day, we were still responsible for this waste. We were the reason it existed. And we chose to buy and use those products.

This really struck a cord with me. I had prided myself on recycling for so many years, and felt that categorized me as an environmentally conscious person. But recycling isn’t the solution to our overflowing landfills or to our plastic pollution problems. It’s certainly a great start, and a much better alternative to sending all of our waste to the landfill, but it isn’t the one-size-fits-all solution we think it is.





The Problems with Recycling

Recycling is comparable to putting a band-aid (or a “plaster,” as we call it in Trinidad) on a knee you grazed while skateboarding. It protects the cut from getting infected, which is a good thing. But the cut could have been completely avoided had you worn knee pads.

If we want to do right by the environment, we need to wear knee pads. By that I mean: we need to first reduce the waste that we create. Even though that waste may ‘go away’ to a recycling facility or a landfill, it still exists because of us.

If we want to see real change, we need to do our part.


Image of cardboard and paper recycling

So, What Happens to our Recycling?

You may not know this but up until recently, most of our recyclables were not being recycled locally, or even nationally. They were being sent to China. Out of sight, out of mind . . . right? But since China put up the Green Fence, a legislation that enforces stricter quality standards for imported recyclables, they now only accept the most valuable recyclables.

In terms of plastic, these are limited to plastics #1 and #2, such as beverage containers. However, plastics #3-7, items like yogurt and takeout containers, are likely not recycled at all. You can learn more about the different types of plastic here.

Down-cycling is another big issue, especially when it comes to plastic and paper waste. Each time these materials are recycled, they result in a lower quality, less recyclable material. Eventually, they get to a point where they cannot be recycled, and they end up in the landfill. Thus, for many of the items in our recycling bin, especially plastic, recycling simply delays the eventual result of ending up in the landfill.

Did you know that only 60-80% of what we put in the recycling bin actually gets recycled?

And here’s another gut-wrencher: in 2015, only 9% of the plastic waste created was actually recycled; 12% was incinerated; and the remaining 79% went to landfills or ended up in the environment (oceans, waterways, or anywhere that’s not a landfill). These are some really scary statistics, but the good news is: we can avoid these issues altogether.


So, Should I Recycle? Yes, of Course! But First: Refuse, Reduce, and Reuse.

I don’t want anyone to think that they shouldn’t be recycling—they absolutely should. But if we are not willing to examine how much waste we create in the first place, and find ways of reducing it, then we are not going to solve the problem at the source.

Let’s put things into perspective. Say that I buy a 24-pack of bottled water. I then recycle each of those bottles, which gets picked up by a waste management truck (that likely guzzles diesel). After being transported to a sorting facility, the bottles get packed onto a shipping pallet and cruise their way over to China (on another diesel guzzling cargo ship). There, they get recycled into other plastics that may or may not get recycled down the line.

I did everything right, but the plastic is still there. It exists because I chose to drink those bottles of water, which also used a lot of energy and resources in the process of being recycled (and made).

This is probably the best-case scenario, but it doesn’t take other issues into consideration. It doesn’t account for the fact that many recyclables are contaminated due to improper sorting and disposal. It also doesn’t account for the remaining plastics, like plastics #3-7, that aren’t usually accepted in recycling facilities.

The point I’m trying to make here is: those 24 bottles, their plastic waste, and the energy used to recycle them into other plastics could have been completely avoided by simply using a reusable water bottle.

Image of a crushed plastic water bottle

What’s the Solution?

The first step is to Refuse.

By saying no to excess packaging, single-use plastics, and constant upgrades, we eliminate the problem altogether. Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Refuse that annual iPhone upgrade even though it’s free, and use your existing phone for as long as it lasts
  • Replace bottled water with a reusable water bottle (this also saves you a ton of money, since you’re refilling from the tap or a water filter)
  • Refuse those samples at the grocery store that come in mini single-use containers, or bring your own container just in case there are some yummy samples you just have to try!
  • Choose fruits and veggies that come in their natural packaging (aka their skin), instead of ones that are packaged in plastic
  • Refuse snacks and goodies that come in non-recyclable wrappers. Opt for homemade snacks, fruits & veggies, and options that you can get in a bulk store.

The second step is to Reduce.

We can significantly lower our waste (and our footprint) by reducing the amount of ‘things’ we buy. We don’t need 6 pairs of yoga pants, 10 formal dresses, 1,064 pairs of shoes, a new car every 2 years, or a new iPhone the second it gets released. Trust me, we can be just as happy and fulfilled with a lot less. So the next time you go to buy something, ask yourself: Do I really need this? Will it make me happier? Is it worth the environmental consequences?

Next up: Reuse & Repair

Phones, computers, clothing, furniture—all of these items are not made like they used to be. But even though the idea of quality seems to have made an Irish Exit, there are things we can do to get more out of the products we buy and extend their lifespans. Here are some examples:

  • Instead of simply tossing that sweater with the hole in it, get it repaired at your local laundromat or re-purpose it. It’s also cheaper than buying a new sweater.
  • Avoid throwing out that couch that’s slightly uneven, fix it yourself or get someone to help you
  • Instead of trading in your computer because of that glitchy thing that happens when you have too many applications open, take it to Best Buy to get it looked at.

We don’t toss out humans when they get sick, we take them to the doctor. We should be treating our valuables in the same way. Give ’em a chance 😉 . Make them last. I guarantee you that it will also save you money.

Then and only then, if none of the above are available, you should recycle.

What about the more complicated stuff?

Recycling the basics like soda cans and plastic bottles is fairly accessible in many residential areas (depending on where you live). However, there are other items, like electronics, yoga mats, and ink cartridges that are a bit tricker to recycle. I’ve compiled a list of common household items, along with other resources to help you determine if an item is recyclable or not. And to help you find a recycling program near you, you can also check out the ecolife website. It gives links to recycling options worldwide and covers everything from computers to cell phones, televisions, and even those annoying light bulbs and leftover paints. If all else fails, you can also purchase a zero-waste box from Terracycle, which recycles common items that are usually not recycled, like candy wrappers and batteries.

Of course, when all is said and done, zero waste is the ultimate goal. So Feel free to check out my post on understanding zero waste and see what you can do get a little closer to being waste-free.

Image of aluminum soda cans


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