Why recycling is the least important "R"

Cover photo: Bas Emmen on Unsplash

If you go back to last year, a gradual movement towards recycling seemed to have all been in vain when China updated its recycling policies. In March 2019, they placed restrictions on many paper and plastic products, causing recycling disposal rates to skyrocket for municipalities. Many towns, including my own, quickly stopped offering curbside recycling due to the changes. This left many people wondering: how am I supposed to continue magically turning my waste into treasure? 

Photo by Vivianne Lemay on Unsplash

Unfortunately, recycling may be on a pedestal akin to Santa and the Tooth Fairy in our minds as it has become one of the most exalted R’s in the green trinity: reduce, reuse, recycle. Many of us, especially as readers of EVAS+, recognize the system as a great way to do our part to save energy and use less. We see products and packaging made “from scratch”, efforts to reduce litter, and many new jobs created through the recycling system. While these are certainly true to a degree, often they are the only talked-about aspects of recycling programs, hiding a number of pitfalls: 

  1. Where should it all go? Sorting recycling is a bit complicated. Even if your area has single-stream recycling, somebody has to sort it. There’s also some miseducation on what is recyclable and if it is, where does it go? Placing recycling in the wrong area can lead to contamination: a dilemma which wastes all that effort on collection and can turn into a hazard for recycling workers. It is largely this dilemma which partially pushed China towards setting restrictions on what recycling they will accept. 
  2. The transportation of recycling: Speaking of that, recycling is usually sent overseas, which not only produces the carbon dioxide emissions that we’re trying to prevent but also takes advantage of developing countries’ recycling workers and residents whose homes have been surrounded by mismanaged recycling surplus. 
  3. Limited lifespan: Paper and plastic have a limited number of times that they can be recycled: this is especially true for plastics, which can only be recycled once or twice.
  4. Fake recyclables: Not only that, but much of plastic that is commonly thought of as recyclable is actually not or it is quite difficult to break down and ends up as pollution: polystyrene (like styrofoam packing), polyvinyl (ranging from garden hoses to rubber ducks), and single-layer plastic film (such as the plastic window to your boxed pasta) are examples that end up on coasts and shorelines all over the world.

Despite these shortcomings, there are ways to partially overcome them within the recycling system. For instance, my household made a chart for our fridge which shows what can and can’t be recycled in general. You could even go as far as listing the different recycling drop-off locations nearby! Rinsing plastics and metals and separating layers such as plastic bags from cereal boxes and plastic spouts from cartons helps to ensure that your recycling doesn’t contaminate the rest of the load when it gets to the collectors. 

The more efficient “R’s” which positively impact the environment are Recycling’s friends: Reusing and Reducing. Based off some of the top contributors to pollution, we’ve listed a few things you can do to reduce and reuse below:

Reusing your products helps us get closer to a circular economy. Here and there are a few ways to help out:

  • When shopping, bring your own bag! Cotton reusable bags are controversial as a replacement for plastic and paper bags due to the cotton industry’s massive use of water. However, whichever bag you choose to use, it can always be used more than once! Cotton and paper are the sturdier options for your groceries, but if you have a stash of plastic bags, try reusing them as trash can liners, lunch carriers, and to dispose of cat litter. You can even bring them back to the grocery store and use them there too!
  • When the t-shirts won’t even make it to Goodwill, substitute them for paper towels by cutting them into rags: their material is often safe for mirrors and other dirty work. The same goes for the old sheets and pillow-cases you were going to throw away.
  • After the time is up for your toothbrush, let it live a new life as a “dish-scrubber” for the nooks and crannies the dishcloth can’t reach.

Perhaps the most beneficial “R” of the bunch is reducing, as it erases waste out of the picture altogether:

  • Those water bottles and tumblers make sure that bottled drinks, single-use coffee cups, and juice pouches don’t make it to the landfills. Due to their impossibility or difficulty to be recycled, bottled drinks and juice pouches were among the top plastic pollutants in 2018.
  • Replace single-use packaging from snacks with some more innovative and sustainable (and yummy!) options:
    • Loving Earth: Chocolate and cereal
    • Quinn Snacks: Pretzels and popcorn
    • Regrained: Energy bars
    • Alter Eco: Chocolate and coconut clusters
    • Nature’s Path: Practically every quick breakfast food you could want!
  • Have Some Leftovers? Use glass tupperware rather than plastic ziplock bags when putting away your extra food. The average American uses 500 ziplock bags a year, and by using glass you’re reducing a lot of waste by reusing these containers!

  • While recycling is an important team player in the R’s, as consumers we’d always like to remain aware of the most efficient ways to cut back on our carbon footprint. Reducing and reusing appear to be a gentler trod on the beach compared to some unfortunate failed attempts at recycling. 

    Having everyone commit to finding these alternative uses for our products, and reducing our waste is crucial to saving our planet. So next time you’re about to throw something away, consider whether there’s a better solution. Could you be using a glass container? Could your toothbrush have another more creative purpose? What else could you be doing to help us move towards a circular economy?

    1 comment

    Such an important article, as we so often pat ourselves on the back when we take our loads of recycling to the corner for pick-up (those of us who still have curbside recycling). Let’s all do our best to do away with the NEED for recycling—-reduce and reuse. I remember the days when we all learned how to recycle; I’m confident that now we can all learn to REDUCE and REUSE. Thanks, Lydia!

    Carolyn Perry February 16, 2020

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