We all do it. We stick something in the recycling bin and we pat ourselves on the back for being responsible. But what really happens to what we trust will be recycled? And does increased recycling actually encourage us to continue being a throw-away society and discourage us from reducing our consumption habits?
After much pondering over the subject since starting this blog, here are some of my thoughts about recycling….
Although recycling is considered the third ‘R’ in ‘Reduce, Reuse, Recycle,’ I think in the minds of most people recycling is the first ‘R’ in their lives. We’re just too busy to make the effort to reduce and to reuse stuff, so we conveniently continue our throw-away lifestyle by recycling.
Well, I have always been a bit suspicious of the merits of recycling, and it occurred to me as I was sitting down to blog that I never actually think of recycling as the third ‘R’. On the contrary, when I put something in the recycling bin it always feels to me that it is really only one step better than the trash can. When put this way, recycling doesn’t look all that heroic, does it? When we look at the problems surrounding recycling we can really see that this is true.
I have often asked myself, and I’m sure many others have as well, what really happens when I put something in the recycling bin? This video about plastic water bottles and our electronics from The Story of Stuff Project was really eye-opening for me. Many aspects of recycling are rife with problems. It certainly is not the ideal we all know it should be.
What are some of the problems?
- Recycling still takes a lot of energy and resources. Albeit, it is usually appreciably less than manufacturing virgin material, it is still contributing significant amounts of carbon and pollution to our planet.
- Much of recycling is really downcycling – unlike glass and aluminum, things like paper and plastic cannot be endlessly recycled back to its original condition. Plastic is always downgraded, and paper can only be recycled so many times before virgin wood content needs to be added.
- Just as much of our manufacturing is shipped overseas, so is much of our recycling. What is the sense in shipping what is essentially our garbage to another country to be processed?
- Recycling shipped overseas is often poisoning the poorest of people in developing countries and often doesn’t end up being recycled at all.
- Recycling programmes in most cities are inefficient or non-existent. Compliance rates by the public leave a lot of room for improvement.
- The recycling of petroleum products is the most problematic. Many plastics are very specific, and cannot be contaminated with other plastics, a near-impossible feat. And because plastic is currently downcycled, it is only a matter of time before it becomes landfill anyway. The petroleum industry certainly hasn’t made recycling plastics a priority.
Reduce, Reuse and Recycle is not only an incomplete picture, it gives a false impression that recycling is better than it is. Even the symbol is misleading, as the arrows suggest an endlessly sustainable cycle which overemphasizes recycling. We can now see recycling is far from sustainable. Here is a rough but more accurate representation of the three R’s as they would ideally be. We need to emphasize the first ‘R’, include garbage in the spectrum, and put recycling in it’s rightful place just above it.
What does this all mean to us as concerned citizens? For me, it means checking out what is in my recycling bin, just as I do with my garbage bin, to see what items I am regularly throwing away and to try and eliminate or reduce them. That’s the first ‘R’, and we’ve got to keep it first, in our minds and our hearts.