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The Bitter Truth About Recycling

I was in college taking a sociology of climate change class, furiously taking notes in the front row because, of course, I was that kind of student, when my professor said something that caused my pencil to still in my hand and my eyes to raise in disbelief.


He had just finished explaining how climate change was irreversible and how actions like recycling made such an inconsequential difference in tackling the real issues with things like pollution that if everyone stopped recycling, things would progress at about the same rate. 


He wasn’t encouraging us to stop recycling, of course. He was a diehard environmentalist, if there ever was one. His intention was to open our eyes to the reality that we weren’t going to change the world by recycling our water bottle from Circle K, and if we really desired to make a difference, more drastic efforts would be required of us.


But that isn’t the message I received from the time I was in grade school until that moment in my last year of college. The message I received was, in fact, the exact opposite of that. The recycling movement had its humble beginnings in the late 1960s with the Ecology Action Movement, which was started by a radical group that was known for opposing the Vietnam War. 


In the almost 60 years since then, recycling has become a household word, and regardless of political affiliation or economic status, almost everyone agrees recycling is good for the environment. Children are taught about the importance of recycling in elementary school with the understanding that recycling and picking up trash off the sidewalk will reduce pollution and create a cleaner world to live in. But the reality of the situation is a bit more complex than the simplistic picture that was painted for us as kids. 


The Bitter Truth


While we may feel like environmental saviors when we put our plastic and paper products in the recycling bin rather than the trash can, the truth is that only about 32% of what we put in recycling bins actually gets recycled. The statistics on plastic are even more shocking. A Greenpeace report showed that most plastic cannot be recycled. Of the 51 million tons of plastic waste produced in 2021, only 2.4 million tons were recycled. Most people are completely unaware that the plastic they take the time to wash out, sort out into their recycling bin, and even drop off at a recycling center winds up finding a home in a landfill all the same. 


Additionally, recycling itself doesn’t even make that big of an impact in the grand scheme of things. It appears that recycling is an effort to abdicate the responsibility of single-use plastic from the manufacturers and onto the citizen who has a civic duty to recycle. People feel better about buying plastic and other single-use products because they know they can recycle them once they are done with them, thinking they will be used to make new products in the future.


Climate change and other environmental issues are extremely complex, and in order to fight them, much more is required in terms of social change than simply getting everyone to recycle. 


The Change the World Really Needs


Reducing the amount of stuff that even needs to be thrown out is far more effective than recycling. Susan Strasser, author of Waste and Want: A Social History of Trash, explains that people were far better at recycling in the 1800s before someone ever showed up at your house to collect your blue bins of recycled materials. 


“People recycled far more than we do now,” Strasser said. “Before there was municipal solid waste disposal, stuff would pile up in your house if you didn’t reuse it.” 


Cleaning a glass pickle jar and reusing it to store pencils or loose change does far more good in terms of reducing your carbon footprint than cleaning out that same pickle jar and putting it in the recycling bin. Not only does it reduce the amount of trash ending up in a landfill, but it also reduces the number of products you buy from the store because you are being resourceful with what you already have. 


Developing skills that enable you to fix what you have is another far more effective means of reducing your carbon footprint. I remember when my coffee bean grinder broke. If it hadn’t been for my fiancé and future father-in-law knowing how to rewire the machine, it would have ended up in the trash can, and I would have been required to spend at least $30 to $50 dollars on a new one. 


Additionally, learning how to sew has enabled me not only to mend clothes when they wear out or break, but it has also allowed me to take fabric from old clothes to make new clothes for myself, all without having to spend a dime.


Being mindful of products you can use many times rather than just once is another great alternative to recycling. Owning a reusable water bottle that can be filled and reused hundreds of times (or until you lose it) is astronomically more beneficial for the environment than even plastic water bottles being recycled and made into something new. 


However, by no means do I want to put the full weight of responsibility for caring for the environment on the individual citizen. Small choices you make will be beneficial but not nearly as impactful as corporations and industries that change the way they produce materials and dispose of their waste.


Companies that decide to produce drinks in glass containers rather than plastic already have a tremendous impact on waste, not to mention the health of the person drinking the product who no longer has to worry about the long-term consequences of phthalates, which is a chemical found in many products, namely plastic, and is known to affect health and reproduction in human and animals adversely.


Final Thoughts


While the state of the world and our desire to make it better may feel overwhelming at times, I encourage you not to fall into the temptation to spiral into existential despair. Earth is pretty effective at rolling with the punches and healing itself. We cannot worry too much about having the power to ultimately destroy or heal the Earth because, frankly, we don’t have that power. There is profound peace that comes from knowing our sole responsibility is to do our best to be good stewards of the Earth we live on while recognizing it isn’t our job, nor do we have the power to save it, especially if we are relying on recycling.

Edited by Sean Mulryan

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