The Trouble with Recycling
Working in a spring garden.

For as long as I can remember, I have heard that if you wanted to take care of Mother Earth you needed to recycle. Recycling, I was taught, was “THE ANSWER” to the growing trash problem. We learned it in school and we teach our children its benefits. We separate our jars, bottles, paper, cardboard, metal, and plastic and put it in the recycle container, and feel really good about saving our planet. But is recycling everything it’s cracked up to be?

Recycling is a useful tool, but it is not a fix all to solve our trash problem.

The United States Environmental Protection Agency defines recycling on its website as the process of collecting and processing materials (that would otherwise be thrown away as trash) and remanufacturing them into new products. In a perfect world, everything we were ready to dispose of could be tossed into the recycling tote and made into something new. We would save energy and natural resources.

Unfortunately, widespread recycling myths and misinformation lead to millions of tons of waste each year. “Wishful recycling”, or putting something in the recycling stream that you “hope” is recyclable, and recycling contaminated items, makes large portions of materials unable to be recycled.

And while glass and aluminum are recyclable indefinitely, plastics can only be recycled two or three times, if at all, before their quality becomes too poor for use.

Add to it the fact that the US exports most of its recyclables to under developed countries with questionable waste disposal methods to have plastics counted as “recycled”, and to avoid disposal costs and impacts at home, and it’s easy to see why some people don’t believe recycling is even worth it. Some companies do not find recycling profitable, so don’t do it. It is cheaper for them to create new plastic than to use recycled materials.

Our focus needs to change! Order Matters!

So, as a consumer, what do we do? First and foremost, we need to take a hard look at our own personal trash habits. The three R’s of sustainable living have never been more important, but the order in which we focus our efforts does matters! 1. Reduce, 2. Reuse, 3. Recycle. If we do not reduce how much plastic we use, and there is little of it being recycled for whatever reason, we have done nothing to help divert waste from the landfills. The more we can reduce what we buy, or reuse the items we have already purchased, the less that goes into the waste stream to start with.

Small Changes can have HUGE IMPACTS!

Some of the smallest changes can truly have the largest impacts. Take single use bottles of water for instance. What if everyone quit buying single use bottled water and instead used refillable water bottles for their hydrating needs?

  • Every single second, 1,000 people open a bottle of water in the U.S.
  • Each day, people in the U.S. throw away more than 60 million plastic water bottles , most of which end up in landfills or as litter in America’s streets, parks and waterways.
  • Americans throw away 35 billion empty water bottles a year. Of those, only about 12 percent are recycled.

That would be 35 billion water bottles diverted from our landfills! And that is just one simple change! Another example is single use plastic grocery bags. Imagine if everyone swapped reusable grocery bags for plastic grocery bags.

  • Americans use 5 trillion plastic bags a year!
  • Americans use an average of 365 plastic bags per person per year.
  • Because plastic bags get wrapped up in regular recycling equipment, most bags end up in the landfill. It requires specialized equipment to process plastic bags and films, and plastic bags cannot be put in with your regular recycling.

Imagine what would happen if these two items alone were eliminated from our waste stream.

Should we give up on recycling? ABSOLUTELY NOT!!

Recycling is still an important step in reducing the amount of waste that is going into our landfills. But knowing what to recycle and how to recycle properly goes a long way to ensuring what you are putting in your bin is actually recycled.

  • Glass and aluminum is almost 100% recyclable and can be recycled indefinitely, but plastic is expensive to collect and sort. There are now thousands of different types of plastic, and none of them can be melted down together. Plastic also degrades after one or two uses, so cannot be recycled indefinitely. Chosing items made of glass or aluminum gives them a better shot at being able to be recycled when the time comes.
  • Household items must be clean and free of contamination. Contamination can occur many ways: from adding items that are soiled with food or grease, to combining them with items that cannot be recycled or have to be recycled differently.  When the occurrence of contaminants in a load of recycling becomes too great the items will be sent to the landfill even though some of them are viable for recycling. Knowing your communities recycling guidelines will go a long way toward ensuring that your items are recycled properly.

Our Choices Are IMPORTANT!

It is becoming clearer that it is our everyday choices that contribute to how well our battle on trash is going. By making thoughtful choices about the purchases we make and what will happen to it when its original use is done, we are deciding how much trash is going into our landfills. Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do I really need this item?
  • Is it one and done, or can it be reused over and over?
  • Can it be reused for a different purpose than originally intended?
  • Is it made from recycled materials, which can help save our natural resources?
  • Is it made from materials that are EASILY recycled?
  • Am I recycling the right way?

By making good choices, we can begin to work together to make our planet a cleaner place for us all.

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