Is Recycling All It’s Cracked up to Be?

Something that’s been on my mind recently is recycling.  I’ve always believed it was a good thing to do and that I was helping divert resources from landfills to be repurposed.  However, after watching some documentaries on YouTube and doing my own “research,” I wonder how often this is really the case.  Maybe recycling isn’t the “free pass” to consumerism that I thought it was.

Depending on where you live, recycling is taken to a sorting plant and then sold and shipped to be recycled elsewhere.  Up until a few years ago, China was accepting most of the used plastic from the U.S. and the rest of the world.  But, even China got tired of trying to recycle all our dirty plastic and countries in Indonesia with very little regulations to protect the people and the environment took China’s place. 

So, recycling can be a dirty business.  In some ways, throwing items in the trash is actually more socially responsible than recycling because it’s a more transparent process.  Your trash goes to a landfill or incinerator to be burned and produce energy.  Where does your recycling go?  I encourage you to find out if you can.  I was unable to get a clear answer on where mine goes or how it’s recycled after a few phone calls and 2 emails to the county waste department with no response.  At the very least, I can say the process of recycling is not a transparent one and it’s very difficult to hold people accountable when there’s a lack of transparency.  It may be that plastic is more of a problem to recycle than glass, metal, or paper.  And items that are a mix of these materials are even less likely to be recycled.

Best case scenario, your recyclables actually get repurposed as you’re led to believe.  Worst case, they go to a foreign country and end up as trash in the natural environment (not a landfill) since mixed or single-stream recycling (as is done in Harford County, MD) tends to have lots of trash materials in it that isn’t profitable for recyclers to deal with.  So, the dirty recyclables just get dumped wherever.

Now what the heck are you supposed to do?  Well, first, realize that recycling won’t save us.  There’s room for improvements to create better quality packaging that is easier to recycle and encourage more people to recycle.  However, if a person can’t even verify that recycling is actually occurring, what’s the point? 

For now, I plan to keep recycling and will try to find out where it all goes.  Maybe my faith in recycling will be restored or maybe I’ll learn I should have just thrown it all in the trashcan.  But, more importantly, I want to focus on REDUCING my use of these materials in the first place.  Reducing is the most effective and transparent part of the 3 arrows recycling symbol.  Reduce, reuse, and recycle.  Reducing just means use less materials.  There are so many ways to do this:

  • Do a home recycling audit to see what items you need to focus on (see below)
  • If you don’t recycle- do a trash audit to see what items you need to focus on
  • Buy normal or large-sized containers of food and beverages- not single serving items
  • Keep getting creative with cooking- to limit carryout and packaged items
  • Learn how to food prep– so you use less packaged items
  • If eating out- dining in produces less waste than carryout
  • Keep reusable bags in your car- avoid plastic bags
  • If you do use plastic bags- reuse them in bathroom trash cans (instead of buying small trash bags) or other uses
  • Start a garden- helps you avoid packaged produce
  • Grow something edible in a pot- helps you avoid packaged produce
  • Figure out how to cancel junk mail
  • Support a local farmer- often you can buy produce with minimal packaging or bring your own bag to put it in
  • Make your own coffee- avoid buying drinks out
  • Start canning at home- avoid canned items in stores
  • Freeze produce from garden (like tomatoes) for cooking- instead of buying canned
  • Wash and reuse plastic freezer bags- instead of using a new one
  • Buy bagged dry beans and cook in pressure cooker- limits canned items
  • Try fermenting drinks at home- buy less bottled/canned alcohol

If you have other ways to reduce the consumption of items that become trash or recyclables, leave a comment below!  There might not be much we can do about the lack of transparency in recycling, but we can definitely be more mindful as consumers and make small improvements in our habits over time to limit our use of disposable goods, regardless of if they get thrown in the trashcan or the blue can.

A home recycling audit lets you see what items you can focus on reducing.
Carryout containers are probably the easiest to reduce.

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