Could the Best Recycling Be No Recycling?


Ever since most of us were very little, we’ve heard the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle.” The three R’s are a classic message that reminds us of the impact we can have on the natural world around us. Unfortunately, one part of the mission gets emphasized more than the others: Recycling. See why there’s more to saving our planet than simply tossing that soda can in the proper bin.

Why Consumerism Matters 

There is a step in the waste management process that happens long before you consider how to dispose of a water bottle; it’s whether to buy it in the first place. That’s because our demand and purchase of products that don’t decompose naturally in our environment are how we send the message to companies to continue making these products. If we don’t buy them, there is no need to dispose of them, either.

What about products that are made with “post-consumer” recycled materials? This method of recycling is a noble effort in that it acknowledges that the life cycle of many plastics is long. Currently, a plastic beverage bottle can take over 450 years to break down on its own in the ocean. (Even after that, you’re left with tiny particles of “microplastic” that never really go away.) If that same bottle can be put into the consumer recycled goods stream and end up as a useful secondary product, that’s good, right? If the choice is between being used in a new picnic table or ending up in the ocean, we all know the table is better.

This still doesn’t negate the fact that a bottle never purchased is a bottle you never need to recycle. The American Chemistry Council states that about 60 percent of U.S. consumers have access to recycling. So, even if dedicated shoppers take time to recycle a bottle every time they can, there will be a significant portion of the population who have nowhere to place that used bottle responsibly.

Is Your Recycling Being Recycled?

To further complicate matters, those who do recycle aren’t guaranteed that their set-aside trash is staying out of the landfills. Recent changes in how China handles imported garbage (which is where many waste management companies ship recyclables) have resulted in their refusal to take the same items that would have been accepted in the past. These same items now don’t have a home, forcing some recyclers to abandon the trash in a traditional landfill, after all.

While much of what consumers hope will be recycled isn’t, cities and trash services are reluctant to tell people to throw their glass and plastic in with the regular trash. They see it as reversing a habit formed over a decade that could be difficult to relearn down the road. In the meantime, experts predict that 111 million metric tons of used plastic will need to find a new home by 2030, acting as a reminder that not purchasing plastics in the first place may have the largest overall effect on a worsening crisis.   

Should You Stop Recycling?

While separating your garbage into glass, paper, and plastic may not be creating the positive change we all hoped it would, there’s no reason to abandon the concept completely. Yes, the best way to avoid waste is to not create (or purchase) it in the first place. But what about if you’ve already created it?

Recycling should continue as long as it makes sense. If your local trash service doesn’t accept it, consider creative ways to upcycle what you can’t dispose of properly. There are thousands of uses for glass bottles in the craft, home décor, and storage categories. Paper can be easily used for compost, animal bedding, or as a weed preventer in your garden. If you find yourself with a truly recyclable item that you can’t recycle the traditional way, a quick look a Pinterest will help you put it to use (usually in a beautiful fashion.) There are ways to repurpose egg cartons, pipe cleaner, soda cans, bottle caps, and t-shirts. Even if you don’t have the time or energy to upcycle these yourself creatively, community Facebook groups are full of buy/sell/trade communities waiting to take your clean and well-cared for cast-offs for their own projects.

The Bottom Line

If there’s anything to be learned here is that recycling is still good, but there may be something better. To not buy things that don’t biodegrade on their own is an idea that we can work toward – even if we can’t quit the habit 100%. Every bottle you don’t buy is another bottle we don’t have to find a home for, work to recycle or search for a new purpose. If you won’t read the daily newspaper (or most of it, anyway), borrow one from the library, read the digital copy, or catch up on their social media feeds. One less paper to be recycled isn’t a bad thing, at all.

For those things you must buy, shop with a plan in place -- from checkout to trash collection day. The simple act of asking “where will this go when I’m done?” is a mindful practice that can help us prioritize for a better world – one product at a time.