The Myth of Recycling

Since the first major environmental movement of the modern United States in the 1960s, recycling has become a household name, with specific bins designated for plastics and paper distributed by the township to every residential home, school building, and office. Since my childhood, recycling has been a common practice, even a third grade class in my elementary school performed a number titled “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” and the lyrics of that song stuck with me throughout my entire k-12 experience until I started to learn more and realized that recycling, I’m sad to report, is really not all it’s cracked up to be.


While the idea of recycling is great, turning discarded plastic, glass, and paper into new products and thus giving them a new life has major efficiency problems. Recycling plants require massive amounts of energy to recycle, and yes glass and aluminum are more easily recyclable than paper and especially plastic. There is a cost to going through this process for every type of material. From the consumer standpoint, understanding the recycling system can be quite daunting; every township has its own rules and regulations, and misinterpreting them can be costly for the planet. Recently, my township shifted regulations in terms of what materials they accept for recycling, but none of my neighbors clearly understood what the newsletter reported. No one could decisively say whether we were not allowed to recycle plastic or paper anymore. With half of the community doing one or the other, there was no real recycling getting accomplished. For the majority of plants, the idea of hiring workers to sort through loads of trash to pick out what should go to the landfill and what can be recycled is just not economical or practical. Instead, if there is one thing that is not acceptable out of your entire load, more than likely the whole load is going straight to the landfill. If you were to dig through a recycling bin of a typical household, I would be surprised if you did not find something that’s not recyclable. Plastic that still has food residue on it, like a ketchup bottle, or say you decided to clean it out, some places won’t take it if it’s not dry. Small caps on water bottles and plastic straws are too small to be recycled (hence the movement to #stopsucking). Recycling can be so difficult for even the most eco-conscious of consumers, so getting to know your township rules and regulations is very important. 


When the nationwide movement to install recycling in every community began, recycling sounded like the answer to all our problems, but the real issue is the single-use property of so many convenience items used today. Yes, recycling is a great tool, one that I favor highly over the landfill, but unfortunately it has become the justification for everyone who is not very eco-conscious. A single claim “But I recycle!” used to put people in the clear, but as we have seen today, that is not enough. To combat the real issue, like that song from third grade, we must reuse, and most importantly reduce. Reducing single-use products, whether it be glass, aluminum, plastic, or paper, is the first step towards sustainability. And if you cannot live without a certain product that comes in a container, find a way to repurpose it when it’s empty. There are so many ideas and options out there to avoid recycling your containers. Just a little digging and searching #reuse can provide you with so many options for all your recyclable items.