How Recycling is not the Be-All and End-All to Our Problems

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. I’m sure most of us are familiar with the 3 R’s. It’s something many of us grew up being told that this is how we care for our planet. We reduce, reuse, and recycle. However, which of the 3 R’s do you hear about most often? What little triangle made out of arrows do you see on the corner of cereal boxes or on the bottom of plastic bottles? That’s right, the recycling symbol. Of the 3 R’s, recycling is what we all are most likely familiar with.

How Recycling will not save us

We often see recycling bins wherever we go. School, offices, grocery stores, restaurants, our own homes. Recycling is everywhere and we are encouraged to do so. We are good people if we recycle, but is it the answer? 

As I was doing research on recycling I came across some interesting things. There are people who support and don’t support recycling. I didn’t even occur to me that people might think that recycling could be bad, I mean, if you recycle you are a good person so how could something we are doing to be good, be bad?

Recycling, our Savior or not?

When it comes to recycling it’s not as glorious as many of us might think it is.

1. Not everything can be recycled

Bad News: Even if it has the familiar ♳ symbol does not mean that it can or is always recycled. Many plastics contain additives that do not allow them to be recycled with other plastics of the same number. These additives can change how they melt and how they respond to new chemicals being introduced. Many of the plastics that cannot be recycled end up in the dump anyway. Plastics that are considered biodegradable cannot be recycled at all and plastics that don’t have a recycle symbol on them will not get recycled. Might as well throw those in the trash.

Good News: Plastic can still be recycled. The most common plastics recycled are plastic #1 and #2. Clear bottles are almost guaranteed to get recycled. This includes water and soft drink bottles. Even though not all the plastic we try to recycle will be recycled, we can try to reduce the number of plastics we use that cannot or will not be recycled.

2. Not every recyclable material will be recycled more than once

Bad News: When it comes to plastic, it isn’t really being recycled but downcycled. Downcycling is where they take materials like plastic and turn it into a “lesser” product and if that lesser product is downcycled again it becomes and even “lesser” product and so on and so forth. When that product is no longer able to be downcycled again, it ends up in the landfills. It does reduce the number of raw materials we might need during the life cycle of that plastic product but it still will end up in the landfill.

Good News: Materials like aluminum and paper are able to be recycled over and over again.

3. That recycling you just put out may go straight to the landfill

Bad News: Not every city or recycling service will recycle the same thing. While plastics #1-7 are recyclable, not everyone will accept every number. Some won’t take certain paper products either. For example,

Columbus, Ohio in Franklin county is provided with recycling drop-off dumpsters through SWACO.

Here are the items they do not accept and they’re a bit picky.

Plastic: Containers that DO NOT have a bottle neck or a base larger than the top.  For example, yogurt cups, butter tubs, drinking cups, disposable storage containers, toys, plastic bags, plastic films and bubble wrap.  Note:Polystyrene foam or “Styrofoam” egg cartons, plates, cups, etc. are NOT accepted.  Please be sure to recycle all plastic single-use bags (grocer, retailer, empty sandwich, cereal, bread, and other food storage, etc.), films, dry-cleaner bags, etc. with a local grocer that provides recycling containers for the collection of these products.

Glass: Ceramics, window or drinking glass, light bulbs and any other glass not in the shape of a bottle or jar.

Paper: Cups, plates, egg cartons, tissues, etc.

Drink Pouches: Made of or lined with foil and plastic.

Metals: Coat hangers, steel scraps and any other metal not in the shape of a container.

So even if my yogurt cup is #2 plastic it doesn’t matter, they won’t take it. My yogurt cup is going to end up in the landfill anyway and will waste the recycling companies time if I put in in their dumpster, so into the trash, it goes.

Good News: If you become familiar with what is and is not recycled in your area or surrounding area, you can take those recyclables to the appropriate place to be recycled.

4. Recycling is stressed with morals rather than its actual effectiveness

You are a good person if you recycle. I am a good person if I recycle. We are a good family if we recycle. We are good citizens if we recycle.

While recycling can be good for the environment, recycling just because it means you are a good person will not always help.

Bad News: It can be more expensive to recycle certain things when there is no one on the market to buy those recycled products. If no one wants to buy recycled green glass, for example, it’s going to be costly to try to recycle it. However, we are wanting to be good citizens and so we put that green glass in our recycling bins, not necessarily knowing that no one wants to buy it and watch it get taken away in the recycling trucks. Because there is not a market for that product, it may never get recycled. It could just be dumped into the landfill along with the plastics that can’t be recycled. They aren’t always going to tell you what can and cannot be recycled because it’s better to have the idea that recycling makes you a good person and makes everyone as a whole look good, so why tell you that no one wants to buy recycled green glass and that it’s just going to the landfill? Economics do play a role is recycling, let us not forget this, and so what does, can, or will be recycled can be based on who’s out there looking to buy that recycled material.

Good News: Knowing what facilities around you recycle what and what recycled materials aren’t doing well on the market can help determine what you should recycle. But hey, if no one one is wanting to buy recycled green glass, you could always try your hand at some reused wine bottle crafts.

5. The idea of things being “recyclable” can make us waste more

We already are a wasteful society. Whether it be our waste of food, our product waste, our waste of time, waste of space, whatever it may be, we are wasteful.

Bad News: We already know that we waste a lot and that it’s a problem. Now, if we introduce a product that won’t harm the environment and is something we can use once and toss and replace over and over again, why wouldn’t we? This is what recycling has or has the potential to become. “Oh, I can recycle these plastic cups so I’ll continue to buy them month after month for the office.” As stated before, those cups may never reach a recycling center and will end up in a landfill at some point. But you have this idea that because it is recyclable, then it will be recycled, and therefore it’s okay to buy them over and over again because it is doing no harm.

Good News: If you realize what recyclable products may or may not be recycled in your area you can avoid getting those products and having them ending up in the landfill. If you just switch over to mugs or washable cups in the office, you could avoid this issue altogether.

Recycling isn’t the Answer Even Though We May Think it is

Recycling is not bad. In fact, it should be encouraged but encouraged to do so correctly. Recycling reduces the number of raw materials needed. Depending on what you are recycling, it can take less energy to make compared to using raw resources. There are plenty of ways that recycling is helpful, but it is not our saving grace.

Let’s take a step back and look at the very first thing I mentioned: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.

In the list of the 3 R’s which comes first? I’ll give you a hint, it’s not recycling.
If we take a moment to actually look at the way these three words are listed we should be able to find out the answer.

  1. Reduce
  2. Reuse
  3. Recycle

If recycling was so important it would be listed first in the 3 R’s.

Why Reducing and Reusing is More Important than Recycling

It is as simple as this, if you reduce what you use and you reuse what you can and then recycle what little you may have left, you’ll be producing little waste.

The goal is not to recycle every little thing you may have, but to reduce the waste your produce.

Ways to Reduce

  • Reusable or paper bags
  • Avoid double-packaging
  • Buy in bulk
  • Use wood or ceramic dishes over plastic
  • Choose glass over plastic
  • Don’t buy bottled water! (unless you absolutely have to)
  • Don’t use plastic straws
  • Use cloth diapers and feminine products over disposable
  • Compost
  • Buy products with little packaging
  • Thrift
  • Cancel unwanted mail
  • Cook your own meals-aka less take out and frozen dinners!

Ways to Reuse

  • Reusable bags
  • Use wood or ceramic dishes over plastic
  • Choose cups glass over plastic cups
  • Use nonplastic utensils
  • Use jars from the store as storage (like spaghetti sauce jars)
  • Make crafts and gifts
  • Turn old clothes into new clothes or hand them down
  • Wash and reuse Ziploc baggies

Reducing and reusing go hand in hand and if you look at the lists above, after you do many of these things you won’t have a lot of waste after you recycle what little you have.

I encourage you to recycle but I encourage you more to reduce and reuse. Reducing and reusing may be a transition for you and your family so continue to recycle as you start to reduce and reuse. Eventually, you may have fewer trips to the recycling bins!


Recycling Myths
5 reasons recycling needs to be the last thing you do
Recycling: Can It Be Wrong, When It Feels So Right?
When Recycling Is Bad for the Environment