The idea of recycling is great! Someone comes to collect our recyclables, or you have to drop off your materials at a center, and then the centers will do all the work to make the products good as new again! Incidentally, that is not how it works. Recycling is not the perfect solution we think it is. Let us examine what about recycling makes it a bit of a myth.
Inconsistencies in Recycling
The first thing to understand is that recycling is a for-profit business. Furthermore, the buying and selling of recycled materials occurs so businesses can generate a profit. Recycling centers try to sell the materials they collected from us to other companies. If companies do not want what the recycling centers have to offer, the recycling centers do not generate revenue. The centers need to make room for new or different materials that will bring in money, so they discard the unwanted.
The demand for certain materials in never consistent. What is deemed ‘unwanted’ now may be desired in the future. The problem is that what is ‘unwanted’ now is discarded. How do they discard unwanted material? They ship it right to landfill or dump it in the ocean. Unfortunately, only around 7% of collected materials actually get recycled. The other 93% is what is discarded.
‘The whole purpose of recycling is to keep used materials from being sent to landfill!
Additionally, the recycling industry has a weak infrastructure. Infrastructure is what an operation needs to function properly and effectively. A weak infrastructure means an inconsistent business. Globally, we generate way too much recycling. This is where the weak infrastructure comes in to play. Recycling centers simply cannot keep up with the waste stream. The infrastructure would be suitable if we consumed significantly less materials, ESPECIALLY plastic.
Recycled materials actually go through a process called “down-cycling”. This process converts materials into lower grade, inferior products which are no longer recyclable from that point on. Some examples are door mats, children toys, and park benches.
Again, the whole purpose of recycling is to keep used materials from being sent to landfill!
A large portion of what is in the recycling stream is plastic. Down-cycling is necessary for plastic materials. Plastic contains toxic chemicals and is often times used for food containers. There are safety and contamination concerns in recycling a plastic food container and putting it back on the market as a food container again. This is where down-cycling comes in to play. Taking used plastic and making it into something not meant to be ingested, such as doormats, is “safer” for humans.
Moreover, down-cycling does not off-set the need for virgin plastic. Manufacturers use oil to make plastic. Due to low oil prices, the process of creating new plastic products is actually cheaper than the process to down-cycle. New, or virgin, plastic is what we need to stop producing because we cannot keep up as it is. (Click here to learn more about Virgin plastic).
Overall, I do not think down-cycling is the enemy. The process does give second life to materials that would have been sent straight to landfill. Down-cycling is a form of recycling; reusing materials. On the other hand, being that is does not off-set the production of virgin plastic or avoid landfills totally, it is not a solution to the waste stream.
Waste is what we want to avoid. We do not want landfills as “solutions”.
A Better Solution
To give you a visual, imagine a line of plastic water bottles going around the planet five times. The earth is about 25,000 miles in circumference. That equals 125,000 miles of plastic bottles being thrown out every week in the US alone.
Unfortunately, our recycling efforts really do not make much of a difference. Should you still recycle? YES. Your item has the chance of making it to the down-cycling process. Giving material second life is how we can eventually get to Zero Waste. We just have to change the kind of materials we produce and the amount we generate and consume.
What is even BETTER than making the attempt to recycle? Consume less, avoid plastic, shop sustainable/biodegradable products, shop in bulk, and purchase reusable items. A stainless steel bottle and reusable cloth bag is a great start! There are a ton of ways to avoid plastic products and packaging, and to generate less waste.
Please feel free to contact me with any Zero Waste related questions/comments/tips/experiences, etc! Do not forget to share this post on your social media page! Let’s be friends on Facebook, Instagram , Twitter , and YouTube too!