Tips to Reduce & Reuse: The Myth of Recycling
Recycling is an industry and it’s been changing rapidly, especially since as of 2017 China is no longer accepting the word’s plastic after three decades of doing so. It once imported nearly half of the global plastic recyclables and has now left many countries, including the U.S., scrambling to adjust. Beyond its current dilemma, recycling is also affected by intricate forces, including oil prices and national policies.
National Geographic recently shared that “There's no silver bullet to stop plastic pollution. We're not going to be able to recycle our way out of the problem, and we're not going to be able to reduce our way out of the problem.” The solution, they say, is that we have to “pursue both those tracks while seeking new solutions at the same time,” like a firm that is raising tens of millions of dollars to invest in new litter cleanup efforts in the developing world.
So, below are myths to crack surrounding recycling and tips on combating plastic pollution.
Myth 1: There’s no need to separate recyclables because the city will sort it out
The advent of “single-stream” recycling systems of the late 1990s led to a boom of consumer partaking in recycling. Since it no longer required sorting by the type of material, colour of glass, or category number labeled on the bottom of certain containers.
All recyclables went into the same bin, which inevitably led to contamination of both unwanted materials and dirty containers. The Container Recycling Institute and National Geographic point out therefore that although single-stream systems” increase participation and reduce the costs of collection, they tend to cost an average of three dollars per ton more to maintain than dual-stream systems, in which paper products are collected separately from other items.”
This results in about a quarter of everything consumers place in recycling bins aren’t able to be recycled, which includes the biggest culprit of low-grade plastics and oddly-hopeful items like broken electronic gadgets. In the end, tossing such un-recyclables into the bin rather than the trash cause more waste due to the fuel wasted and machine dysfunctions they cause. They even pose harm to workers with contaminants like shards of glass.
Therefore, whatever recycling system your community follows, make sure to follow the local guidelines on what is accepted as a recyclable. Otherwise, your entire bin will be considered contaminated and will go straight to the landfill as sorting it all out is too costly.
Myth 2: Items made of more than one type of material aren’t recyclable
When recycling began decades ago—you can listen to its mafia-laden story via NPR’s Planet money here—it faced more limits. So, popular items such as juice boxes and milk cartons were a no-go.
Today, more than 60 percent of communities in the U.S. recycle cartons with the development of technology. It’s also in part due to consumer demand, pushing manufacturers to making packaging that is easier to recycle. So, one of the biggest impact you can have as a consumer, especially of items that you’re consuming that are not recyclable, is to let the manufacturer know that you demand better. The website Change.org often has such petitions, which led to the grocery giant Trader Joe’s to begin to cut its overwhelming 1 millions pounds of plastic. Here’s an on-going one for Target.
Again, always check your community’s rules on recycling. For instance, here is our local area of Baltimore’s guidelines. Due to the aforementioned technology, it is no longer required to separate out certain parts, such as the plastic windows from envelopes. Yet, as mentioned before, it doesn’t mean that the recycling bin is a free-for-all.
Myth 3: There’s no need to recycle since items can only be recycled once
This is simply not true as many common items can be recycled multiple times, with significant energy and resource savings.
Glass and metals, including aluminum, can effectively be recycled indefinitely, which is why even environmental economists who argue for no longer recycling still advocate for recycling these items. In fact, aluminum cans are in high demand and don’t require exporting to other countries, so you can continue drinking your clichéd La Croix in peace.
Paper also remains recyclable despite its quality being slightly compromised. The technology of recycling paper has vastly improved and it can now be recycled five to seven times before it is too damaged for use. Still, they can be repurposed for use in other packaging materials like egg cartons.
It is true that plastic can often only be recycled once or twice into a new plastic product. In such cases, they no longer meet the criteria to be food containers but can still function as packaging for household items. Some companies are even innovating for using leftover plastic as mix-ins with asphalt for more durable road materials.
Last Note on Climate Change & Lasting Initiatives
Remember that in addition to reducing and reusing before resorting to recycling, there are many more ways we can reduce our carbon footprint. We highly recommend this book, which lists some of the top solutions to climate change to be educating girls, family planning, and combating food waste, which you can read tips on reducing here. Please also take the time to sign the Global Deal for Nature, which is calling on world leaders to support a Global Deal for Nature that protects and restores half of the Earth’s lands and oceans.
About the Author
Almila Kakinc-Dodd is the Founder, Editor-in-Chief of The Thirlby. She is also the author of the book The Thirlby: A Field Guide to a Vibrant Mind, Body, & Soul. She is currently pursuing her Master’s in Nursing as a Dean’s Scholar at Johns Hopkins University. Her background is in Anthropology & Literature, which she has further enriched through her Integrative Health Practitioner training at Duke University. She lives in the Washington, D.C. Metro Area, where she regularly contributes to various publications. She is a member of Democratic Socialists of America and urges others to join the movement.