Growing up, learning about recycling was one of the first ways that I was introduced to environmentalism. The “three Rs” of waste management - reuse, reduce, recycle - were all taught to me as positive and interchangeable steps to take towards a more sustainable lifestyle as early as elementary school. But my perception of the third “R” - recycling - changed deeply when I had the opportunity to tour a nearby recycling plant during my freshman year of college. In visiting this regional plant, I was astonished by the sheer quantity of plastic waste being processed. Conveyor belts, running faster than any I had seen before, carried a constant stream of waste. Operators were tasked with removing nonrecyclables from the belt, but the system simply moved too fast to catch everything. Our tour guide explained how they regularly receive clearly non-recyclable objects, including firearms, mattresses, and dead animals. Additionally, he explained that objects are regularly recycled improperly, as with bottles being tucked inside larger bottles, or unrinsed containers with food residue. The plant simply moves at too rapid of a pace to sort out all of these contaminated objects, meaning that their final output is often not “clean,” making it much harder to sell or repurpose.
This is a problem that extends much further than the region which this plant serves. Plastic recycling is an inherently flawed practice, both due to the high energy consumption which it requires and the fact that the quality of material is reduced (or “downcycled”) each time it goes through the recycling process, meaning that it will eventually need to be thrown away even if recycling prolongs this inevitability. However, the issues pale in comparison to the industry-specific problems faced by recycling today. Recycling operates as a for-profit business. In order for recycling to be viable, there must be ample demand for processed recyclables. Due to high levels of contamination in recycling, this has become increasingly difficult to obtain, meaning that contaminated “batches” of waste will often end up being sent to the landfill instead of recycled. Because of this, studies have estimated that only around 9% of plastic has been recycled, a number that has proven to be frustratingly constant, despite continually increasing consumer recycling rates. Furthermore, the U.S.A. in particular has been a major player in the troubling trend of wealthier countries exporting their low-quality scrap plastics to poorer ones, where they often quickly become incorporated into landscapes and waterways as plastic pollution. Despite recent legislative efforts to stop this practice, U.S.A. corporations have continued to ship their plastics internationally.
Of course, it is better to recycle waste instead of trashing it whenever possible, but it is a mistake to think of recycling as a true solution to the major issue of plastic waste, particularly in the commodified capacity in which it is practiced currently.
As Maria has written about for the EcoNews bulletin, technological advances in the Zero Waste movement can be helpful, but often distract from its most central mission: reducing waste consumption in the first instance. This is a logic that translates well to recycling specifically. Of course, it is better to recycle waste instead of trashing it whenever possible, but it is a mistake to think of recycling as a true solution to the major issue of plastic waste, particularly in the commodified capacity in which it is practiced currently. As the Earth Day Network writes on their blog, “This narrative of recycling is an industry sleight of hand, shifting the blame of plastics pollution onto the consumer. Plastics manufacturers can continue to produce single-use plastics, and businesses can package products in plastics, without retribution.” Though I learned all about the “three Rs” of waste management from a young age, I was never taught that these terms were actually hierarchical - with reduction of waste consumption in the first instance being the most important step, reusing pre-existing materials as an intermediate option, and recycling if all else fails. Reconsidering this fundamental sustainability teaching within the hierarchical framework has helped me to contextualize recycling as a part of a much larger solution instead of a solution within itself.
That said, there certainly are steps that can be taken to make recycling a more useful aspect of waste reduction efforts. Recycling is much more likely to be useful when it is widely practiced effectively. Although issues of contamination are reducing the overall demand for recyclables globally, the demand for clean recyclables is still increasing. Ensuring that you are aware of all of the guidelines for recycling in your area is one way to prevent contamination and ensure that more of what is placed in recycling bins is actually recycled - local recycling rules may be investigated by entering your zip code at https://berecycled.org/. Additionally, some items are much easier to repurpose than others, even if both are marketed as “recyclable.” Materials like aluminum cans, glass, and paper, are substantially easier to repurpose than plastics, so using items packaged in these materials as often as possible can also help to make recycling more effective. Recycling has the potential to be a helpful tool in combating the major issue of plastic waste, however, it is important to be aware of its limitations as well.
Susannah Budd is a junior Geology major at Pomona from Bow, New Hampshire. She is especially interested in agriculture, food systems, and sustainable soil science.