Recycling. It’s known as an “eco-friendly” practice. But is it really?
Unfortunately, widespread recycling myths and misinformation create millions of tons of waste each year. America alone generates 34.5 million tons of plastic waste each year, enough to fill Houston’s Astrodome stadium 1,000 times.
The worst part? Only 9% of recycled items actually get recycled.
Why Recycling has Become Known as an Eco-friendly Practice
The EPA defines recycling as the process of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products.
If it were that simple and products were all recycled and reused, we’d have some incredible benefits like...
- Sending less waste to landfills
- Saving energy and natural resources in production
- Creating and supporting US jobs
For most of your life, you’ve probably been taught that recycling is an easy, effective way to care for the environment. In a perfect world, maybe.
Why Isn’t Recycling Working Anymore?
The answer is pretty simple. Most items aren’t actually recycled, and our system is severely broken. There are no regulations or enforced guidelines in recycling.
Like many industries, it’s all about efficiency and profit.
But did you know that we depend on other countries to process most of our recycling in the US? Think about that for a minute.
How backward is it that we spend money and energy transporting TONS of waste across the world just to “recycle”? Are we even saving any energy or money with our efforts?
Probably not. Experts estimate that 20 to 70 percent of plastic intended for recycling overseas is unusable and is ultimately discarded.
Yep. You read that right.
Recycling is shipped thousands of miles across the ocean, wasting precious energy, money, and time – only to be thrown away.
The USA Has No Reliable Recycling Partners
There was a time when China was recycling almost half of the world’s discarded materials due to a manufacturing boom. They couldn’t keep up and needed the materials. For decades, the United States sent its recycling to China, but China stopped accepting most international waste in 2018.
Due to large amounts of contaminated materials (up to 30%), China was forced to create stricter recycling standards. Many countries, including the US, bailed.
With China out of the picture, where does the US send recyclable materials?
The US now sends its recycling waste to some of the world’s poorest countries – ones that are already overwhelmed by waste and have lax environmental standards.
In 2018, the US exported the equivalent of 68,000 shipping containers of plastic recycling to developing countries that mismanage more than 70% of their own plastic waste.
So what happens to the waste we put in our recycling bins for pick up or take to recycling centers?
You know the answer...and it isn't good.
Most People Don’t Know How to Recycle Properly
There’s a lot of misinformation and recycling myths. Consumers don’t take the time to understand how to recycle properly so we can reuse the materials. There are a variety of issues when it comes to how the general public recycles:
- Lack of attention – means people don’t actively check the container number or regulations to see if it’s actually recyclable. Just because it’s plastic doesn’t mean it’s recyclable. Just because you drop something off at the recycling center doesn’t mean it makes it through as a reused material.
Additionally, linings and coatings (wax or plastic) prevent paper cups and other items from being recyclable and create tons of recycling waste.
- Contamination – even one small item can prevent an entire batch from being recycled. This includes soiled or wet paper, remains of food, grease, and oily substances left on recyclable materials.
- Thoughtless practices – our convenience culture doesn’t consider the consequences of wasteful consumption on a wide scale – it’s swept under the rug or blatantly ignored.
Unused recyclable items have no home. They are being burned, sent to landfills, or washed into the ocean. It’s adding to an already large waste footprint and wreaking havoc on the environment.
Recycling Creates Waste and Continues to Hurt Our Environment.
Besides the fact that most recycled items don’t make it through the entire recycling process, plastic production and use are harmful to your health and the environment. Many plastics contain toxic chemicals like BPA that leach into your food over time. This can cause serious long-term health issues.
Plastic production (of all kinds! Even “natural plastics”) produces harmful gas pollution that adds to climate change. Plastic production uses obscene amounts of fossil fuels. Eight percent of the world’s oil production goes to manufacturing plastics! So even when you’re taught that bioplastics are “better for the earth,” – it’s sadly not true.
Additionally, many bioplastics that claim to be compostable are only compostable in commercial composts. They cannot go into your backyard compost. Many companies conveniently forget to leave out that crucial detail while greenwashing their products.
Why You Need to Practice a Zero Waste Lifestyle Instead of Leaning on Recycling
The obstacles to overcoming our recycling issues worldwide are far too significant for one person to fix. Besides, there are much better alternatives to recycling that guarantee you create little or no waste. Living a sustainable, zero waste lifestyle means there’s no guesswork in where your waste goes.
Here’s how you can start your zero waste journey through your consumer choices:
- Buy zero waste products that are thoughtfully made
- Avoid plastic items at all costs (beware of sneaky plastic linings!)
- Choose truly recyclable materials like glass or aluminum
- Look for biodegradable materials in products, like bamboo or plant fibers
- Find a zero waste store that provides options for your lifestyle
- Shop locally for food at the farmer’s market or support a CSA
- Choose only to support online stores if they use eco-friendly shipping
Tip: Earth-friendly products are great too, but try to consider each element of your purchase. Many earthly-friendly products are still packaged in plastic or wasteful materials, so do your research! Aim to find truly sustainable, zero waste products in every aspect of your life.
Find ways to repurpose things you already have instead of creating waste:
- Always choose reusable or refillable options that can be bought in bulk
- Keep bubble wrap to reuse or take it back to any UPS store (they will reuse it)
- Repurpose sturdy plastic bags for leftovers, snacks, or organizing things
- Use jars for canning food items, storing bulk pantry items, or as a flower vase
Do your best to avoid contributing to everyday consumer waste:
- Eat at home more, where you know you can control your waste
- Take your own shopping bags to the grocery store
- Eliminate plastic in common household chores, like laundry
- Say no to paper receipts and printed records when it’s not necessary
- Create homemade treats instead of buying individually packaged items
The biggest thing to remember – start small.
It can feel overwhelming, but adding a few minor changes into your routine and gradually making sustainable choices is FAR better than doing nothing at all.
This is an exciting time to be alive and make a difference. As our awareness of the earth’s critical condition grows, there are more zero waste products available than ever before!
So next time you’re browsing, ask yourself this – will your purchase create a positive change or contribute to the problem?
You’ve got this – all it takes on your part is intentional consumption and the power of knowledge!