Recycling is one of the pillars of sustainable living and usually the most convenient and least time consuming option, as opposed to reducing what you consume and reusing. It is theoretically a fantastic thing.
It simply requires sorting your trash and bringing them to the nearest recycling point. It seems so easy, yet 91% of the world’s plastics not even recycled – bearing in mind that some cannot be recycled.
Perhaps the areas that create the most waste may not have the facilities to recycle materials in the first place; it may be too costly. Maybe the recycling guidelines are unclear and people are unsure of what can be recycled or where to bring their waste. Maybe they are simply unbothered and/or have no incentives to recycle.
Needless to say, environmental and economic sustainability goes beyond recycling.
What is Recycling and How Is It Beneficial?
Recycling is the process of creating waste materials into new ones, so that the material itself can be used once more. It reduces the amount of waste that goes to landfill, minimises pollution, conserves natural resources as less virgin products are manufactured and creates jobs.
Depending on your location, glass, metals (e-waste, tin cans included), cardboard, paper, some types of plastics can all be recycled – however this is more common in more economically developed countries. Whereas, in less economically developed, countries, recycling is usually done by the informal sector, for example the Zabbaleen in Egypt, who go door to door collecting waste Cairo’s 15,000 daily tons of household rubbish, recycling 85% of it.
Why Sustainability Goes Beyond Recycling
It is important to remember that this is just part of a sustainable solution. When thinking about sustainability we must also consider the other pillars of green living – refusing, reducing and reusing.
1. There are environmental, economic and social costs associated with recycling
Recycling is ultimately a tradeoff between the pros and cons of recycling and not recycling.
Recycling plastic uses roughly double the energy, labor and machinery necessary to put it in landfill. Other costs include: more chemicals being used to clean some of the waste, more pollutants released, financial capital going towards recycling facilities and maintenance, land/water/energy use and small factors like, more trucks on the road carrying heavy materials – polluting further. Furthermore, those working in the sector may even be putting their lives at risk by exposing themselves to such chemicals.
Additionally, recycling in higher income countries can be compared to the cost of landfilling as it is made cheaper when landfills are taxed, when there is less capacity or when the market price for creating landfills increases.
2. Materials cannot be recycled infinitely
While glass and some metals can be recycled over and over again, plastics cannot be endlessly recycled. The most common plastics, such as PETE and HDPE, can only be recycled once or twice before they are down-cycled, which means they are recycled into something of a lesser value and lower quality, until they cannot be recycled anymore. Furthermore, three other types of plastics cannot be recycled at all. Unfortunately, the fabrics made from recycled plastic cannot themselves be recycled again at the end of their useful lives – so still create a waste problem.
3. It creates an ‘It’s ok to buy/use this much because I will recycle it’ mentality
Whilst recycling is a great start towards a more sustainable lifestyle, consuming less is the goal. Many buy with the intention of recycling but sometimes forget to do so.
4. It gives you a false sense of security
The items tossed into your recycling bin may not even get recycled…
As said by Bea Johnson said in her TEDx talk:
“Recycling depends on way too many variables to make it a dependable solution. What we put in our recycling bin is out of our control. What happens to it isn’t certain.”
We may feel that we are making a difference by taking our recyclables to their respective bins, but after that we are left trusting that these will be recycled, when in fact, they may not be.
For example, we do not know whether someone else will put cartons contaminated with greasy pizza into the recycling bin, which can then contaminate our clean carton and rest of the cardboard in that batch – Leading to our cardboard not being recycled.
5. Since the beginning of the year, China stopped importing waste
China used to be world’s largest importer of waste but it has now banned 24 types of scraps from entering its borders, leaving the rest of the world with an additional 111 million metric tons of plastic to deal with by 2030.
Europe used to export less than 12% of plastic waste to China and other countries in the Global South.
Many plastics that find their way into our homes and businesses cannot be recycled at all (or it is not economically viable to do so). This is why the first stage in sustainable living is to reduce the about we buy, and to think very carefully about what we bring into our lives in the first place. Although refusing, reducing and reusing are distinguishably difficult to do without a lot of effort and time, prevention is better than cure.
Rather than viewing recycling as a panacea to our waste problem, we should begin by refusing certain items and reducing the waste we generate in the first place.
Last of all, we do believe that recycling is a good force. Do not forget to vote in your local elections and to start a dialogue about it with your local officials. This is where and how policies about waste management and climate change are discussed and passed.