Recycling is not the answer

Jun 22, 2019 | New Habits, Reducing Waste

Recycling makes sense, doesn’t it? Reusing resources means Earth’s finite resources last longer, plus energy, fuel and water are saved in the harvesting of new resources. And making products from recycled materials uses less energy than making them from new materials. Not to mention our landfills won’t fill up quite as fast. (Sustainability Victoria)

Recycling also makes us feel good. We feel like we are doing a good deed by recycling rather than throwing stuff in landfill. We can claim to be “doing our bit for the environment”.

Recycling is a good thing, isn’t it?

Well, I’m going to come right out and say it – recycling is not the answer to our environmental woes.

The truth is most of us don’t really know what happens to the items drop into our recycling bin and what we are really doing is just handing the problem over to the next person. We put our faith in a system that is actually less than ideal.

Some materials, such as aluminium and glass complete a full circle through recycling and can be recycled pretty much indefinitely.

Plastics, on the other hand, lose quality through the recycling process and can only be recycled a few times at most. The materials that are recovered are not remanufactured into similar products, such as another plastic drink bottle, but into items such which can tolerate the lower quality plastic. Thus, often ‘virgin’ products are generally ‘down cycled’ just once. This is not a circular or ‘closed loop’ system.

Even for materials which have a good recovery rate through recycling, our current recycling system may fail us. The recycling industry, like any other, is subject to economic forces. If the cost of recovering the recycled materials is too high in comparison to sending it to landfill, or the demand for the products produced with the recycled material is low, the economic incentive to recover the materials is not there.

Up until recently much of our recycling was shipped overseas because costs were lower, making it more economically viable. On 31 December 2017, China stopped accepting our waste and this has created a recycling crisis in Australia. Local recycling facilities cannot handle the volume leading to stockpiles of recyclable materials in Australia and some local governments considering sending household recycling to landfill.

Then there are also those things that, although they contain recyclable materials, cannot be disposed of through our household recycling services because their complex and compound nature make them difficult and expensive to process. An example of this is cosmetic packaging that might contain a combination of glass, metal and plastic. Organisation such as TerraCycle can deal with this waste but collection points are not readily available.

When it comes down to it, all recycling and manufacturing processes involve energy and other resource use anyway. It isn’t a cost free option.

All this also assumes, of course, that you have access to recycling facilities in their various forms. In some places, households just do not have convenient recycling options.

In summary, recycling is not the answer.

“Recycling plastic is to saving the Earth what hammering a nail is to halting a falling skyscraper.”

Matt Wilkins in “More Recycling Won’t Solve Plastic Pollution”, Scientific American, July 6 2018

So am I saying you should stop recycling? No, of course not. It is a much better option than filling our landfill with resources that could be reused. It is just that we need to think about recycling in a different way and educate ourselves about what actually happens to our waste – including our recycling.

First of all, we need to become more conscious consumers. If we look at the hierarchy of waste reducing principles, RECYCLING is second from the bottom.

Dealing with our waste actually starts before we even purchase the item. Do we really need it? Can we borrow it? Can we buy it secondhand?

Once we have the waste to deal with, can we reuse or repurpose it? Is it useful to someone else? Can it be composted?

Once we have exhausted all these options, then the next option is to recycle it. And if it is not recyclable, either through household recycling or specialised services such as ink cartridge recycling or soft plastic collection at the supermarket, well then it goes to landfill.

(To download a printable version of the Waste Reducing Principles chart, click here.)

We can also agitate for change too. As I discussed in my Banishing Eco-Guilt post, we can only do so much in our existing system. It is currently difficult to avoid some waste streams because we are not being offered options by the manufacturers. Businesses and corporations need to know that we want change. We want less – or no – packaging on our products. We want things packaged in glass rather than plastic. We want access to recycling services for difficult to recycle items. And we want ‘cradle to cradle’ design – for the manufacturer to take responsibility for the full lifecycle of the product.

Finally, we need to ‘close the loop’ and buy goods made from recycled materials. One because it is a better environmental choice but also because we need to create demand for recycled materials so that it becomes more economically attractive to invest in this industry.

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