Before my plastic-free “awakening” back in January 2019, I used to religiously recycle everything I could.
If something didn’t say it was recyclable, I’d hope for the best and toss it in the recycling bin anyway, which is known as "wish-cycling".
I thought there was a magic land where trash went to be processed and turn into something else, without even thinking too much about, how, what, why, where. It was just something that happened, no doubt.
Now I’m so much more environmentally aware…and recycling no longer fills me with joy, I constantly and actively try to avoid it. Go figure. I even find it funny when people say that the are professional recyclers or that they have been recycling since the 80's and pride themselves for recycling.
No offense but probably all your recycling ended up in landfill or the ocean, including mine.
My main frustration with recycling is that it gives the impression that we are being responsible consumers and that, by doing it, we’ve done our part.
Of course, recycling is far more responsible than sending a ton of stuff to landfill or incineration (in the case of Massachusetts) and it's a good place to start, but a bad place to stop.
A bin crammed full of recyclables is nothing to feel proud or "green" about.
Or going to the grocery store with a giant bag of bags to put in the recycling bin.
Recycling brings a false sense of security. It sends the message that you can consume what you want as long as you recycle afterward. Recycling still takes huge amounts of energy. It involves the collection of waste from your doorstep and delivery to a MRF, sorting, cleaning, processing, and re-molding, followed by shipping to the next part of the chain, and plenty of this recycling waste could be avoided completely by shopping a little differently.
Being a responsible consumer begins long before we throw our trash out
The main issue is that recycling doesn’t address the issue of over-consumption and/or production of bad packaging, as Dr. Max Liboiron, director of the Civic Laboratory for Environmental Action Research (CLEAR) in St. John's, Newfoundland called it is "Like putting a band-aid on gangrene"
Recycling is a Business.
It’s nice to think of recycling as a service that exists for the good of the planet, and we all have a right to it, but actually, most recycling centers are businesses and rely on markets, just like other normal businesses do. That means if a waste line has value, it will be recycled, and if it has no value, it won’t be. This changes according to global prices, demand, and labor fees.
For example, to get a clean line of glass to make new glass you need hand pickers who will select glass bottles and leave bits of terracotta, ceramic, old lightbulbs, etc. A machine would sort this as glass and would contaminate the batch. But if the value of glass is low, and the cost of hand pickers is too high, the option might be to crush it to make road base (Which is currently the case in MA) or even to landfill.
I was told that the only glass processing facility was in the next State – and this is still true in 2015. To drive a truck there with a load of glass that might be rejected for contaminants was an expensive risk, and the price of glass was too low to employ hand pickers to ensure there was no contamination, so this MRF chose to send all its recyclable glass to landfill.
The exact same process happens in a much more harmful for the planet way to plastic, because while the glass is non-toxic, plastics contaminate, leach toxins in the soil when put into landfill and release dioxins and other harmful toxins in the air when incinerated.
Knowing whether something is recyclable or not is actually straightforward. One reason is that just because something can theoretically be recycled, it doesn’t mean that it will be, and every municipality has different rules about what it will accept.
For example, the bioplastic PLA is recyclable, but it is hard to sort without specific technology and most recycling plants don’t have this, so it is not recycled. Just because something has a symbol with arrows chasing each other, doesn't mean that it is recyclable.
In fact, the difference in recyclability of all plastic varies wildly from city to city, and country to country. There are many countries that have NO recycling but they still manage to get everything in plastic packaging. Even moving suburb can mean a whole new set of rules apply! (You can usually find the details of what your council will and won’t accept on its local website.)
For most of Massachusetts, you can rely on https://recyclesmartma.org/
Even if you check your city listings meticulously, there is still a chance that your recyclables won’t be recycled. One reason is how they’ve been sent to the MRF. If you’ve bagged your recycling neatly, chances are it won’t be unbagged at the other end but sent to landfill instead. Ditto if you’ve left any liquid in bottles, or left the lids on.
But let’s assume you’ve done everything exactly as you are supposed to. Great…but what if your neighbor hasn’t? Or the guy at the end of your road? People chuck all kinds of things into recycling, and it can contaminate the whole truck and mean the whole thing gets landfilled. Car batteries, duvets, and pillows, a dirty yogurt cup, a salad container with dressing on it, even loose shredded paper can contaminate whole loads.
It’s not necessarily that people are deliberately doing the wrong thing, either. Recycling can be confusing! and it shouldn't be.
Companies create monstrous packaging hybrids like milk cartons that are multi-material which makes it really hard to recycle.
If not Recycling, then What?!
I want to be clear that everyone should recycle. Of course, I recycle! Whenever I can, however, my goal is to recycle as little as possible. I happen to live in an apartment complex with over 200 units and NO RECYCLING.
Like mine, there are thousands of apartment complexes (and they keep building more) that have no recycling because "private properties" fall out of municipal programs and property owners are not required to pay for recycling, only trash pick up.
It is illegal in Massachusetts to throw recyclable materials in the trash, but this "Law" only applies conveniently to some people.
Only 9% of the world's plastic is recycled
Instead of recycling, I try to bring as little waste as possible through the door. Bringing my own produce bags, cloth bags for bread and reusable shopping bags to the shops, buying in bulk, canceling junk mail and buying second-hand items rather than new has seriously cut down the amount of packaging we throw away. Most importantly, avoid buying what I don't really need and using what I already have.
We don’t buy plastic so we never have any to recycle, and since I discovered the power of Ecobricks, I have been able to deal with a ton of plastic that is not directly mine but from my workplace.
This is all the plastic in my house as of January 2019
I am still purging plastics out of my life and it has been a long process that requires patience but in the end, it is totally worth it. I am saving a lot of money, I lost 10 pounds because I am eating better, and I feel good about not contributing to the massive trash/recycling problem worldwide
Everyone knows the mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, but we tend to focus on the last one – “Recycle” – when it’s far more environmentally responsible to REFUSE! and then reduce, Reuse, Recycle.
We can’t recycle our way to a more sustainable planet! We need to be just as responsible about what’s entering our house as we are with disposing of it afterward!
Click Here for a few recommended items you can use to avoid bringing plastic to your house