The Truth About Recycling

bottles clean close up cold
Photo by George Becker on

“At least it’s recyclable!”

I hear this all the time.  In reference to plastic bags, food containers, packing materials.  This is apparently supposed to make me feel better.  The truth is that almost none of this gets recycled.  Almost none?  Yes.  We’re talking 91%.

Recycling has a good rep in the United States.  Recycling bins are colored a happy shade of green (like the trees!) and children are taught that recycling helps the environment.  

But research has shown this is not the case.  A small portion of it ends up in incinerators, and most of it ends up in landfills, or floating in our oceans.  The plastics that are lucky enough to be processed by recycling facilities can often only be recycled once before they cannot be recycled again.

(Here is a chart showing the difficulty of recycling different types of plastics.)

Even though everyone seems to like recycling so much, most people know little about it.  Few people know to rinse out food containers before putting them in the bin (if you don’t, these materials are considered contaminated and will not be recycled), and even fewer know what the numbers in the little recycling triangle actually mean.  

I do not believe people are inherently apathetic about the environment, I am more inclined to think that Americans do not receive a proper education about waste, recycling, and the like.  For example, I once knew someone who put tea bags in the recycling (which, by the way, aren’t even compostable because most are lined with plastic).  I sincerely don’t think this person intended to contaminate the rest of the recycling, perhaps they just didn’t know.

I would also theorize that the greed of corporations has led to an increasingly wasteful, convenience driven consumerist culture, which is ultimately more profitable for big business.  It makes companies look good to say their product is recyclable, but they are in no way liable for the environmental impact that that product has after it has been used.

I once saw a sign over a trash/recycling receptacle in a Starbucks that said something like, “One day everything will be recyclable.  Until then, please sort your recyclables into the correct bin.”  What does that even mean?  One day we will achieve a perfectly sustainable way of living without changing our habits?  Needless to say, I’m skeptical.

These days, recycling is just another form of greenwashing.  We put a plastic container in the recycling bin and feel good about “doing our part”, but when we don’t think about what happens after that, we are doing the natural world, and ourselves a disservice.  Plastic is clogging our waterways and killing our wildlife as never before, and we must act now to reverse this problem.

And by that I do not mean we need to clean up the ocean or improve our recycling infrastructure or make everything recyclable.  Those are important steps, but they don’t get at the root of the problem—we must stop producing and consuming so much plastic.

Let me put it this way: if you had a sink that was overflowing, what would be your first move to clean up the water?  You wouldn’t scoop up the water on the floor by the handful as more came gushing down, you would turn off the faucet.  Stop it at the source.  Shouldn’t we do the same with plastic?

Here are some actions you can take:

Stop buying drinks in plastic bottles.  Or at least cut out plastic water bottles.

Always shop with your own reusable bags.  Have at least one in your bag, in your car, anywhere easily accessible to make it easier.

Avoid plastic straws and cutlery, and to-go coffee cups when possible.  These are not recyclable.

Ask questions.  Why does this fruit come in plastic?  Where does my recycling go when the truck picks it up? Tell people what you find.

Tell companies that you don’t like their packaging.  If you’re trying to avoid waste anyway and are cutting certain products out of your life, tell the companies WHY they are losing one of their valuable customers.

Call your representatives and demand action.  Suggest taxes be placed on single use plastics, show your support for plastic bag bans, demand companies be liable for the waste they create, etc.

Don’t wait for other people to save the environment. 

It is all our responsibility.  The change starts with us.

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