There is increasing general awareness that plastics cause problems. We see them clogging our waterways, swirling around in the ocean, and even entering digestive systems of humans and other animals. We are told to recycle, that recycling eliminates the problem, and once a piece of plastic leaves our hand and falls into the recycling bin, it is no longer a source of pollution. However, the story behind recycling is much more complicated. 

Beginning in the early 2000s, single-stream recycling made it much easier for everyone to feel like they were doing good by making recycling more simplified. However, at the same time, plastics and packaging started to get more complex, making the actual process of recycling much more difficult to do correctly. There have been countless times when I have had to stop and think: “Which numbers are recyclable? Or wait, maybe it was the shape of the plastic that mattered…and what to do about the cap and wrapper around this plastic? And do I really need to clean this container out?” I get overwhelmed and in order to feel less ashamed about my consumption, I quickly chuck my dirty smoothie cup from Sheetz into the recycling bin and hope for the best. Maybe you have been in this situation too. Unfortunately, this “wishful recycling” does a lot more harm than good. 

When we improperly try to recycle an item, we introduce contaminants into the recycling process. Due to rates as high as 25% contamination in the U.S., China stopped accepting recyclables unless they were under a 0.5 percent contamination threshold. Here are some more sobering facts from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about recycling:

  • Of the municipal solid waste (MSW) created in 2017 in the U.S., about 65% was not recycled or composted. 
  •  Although glass and metal can keep being recycled, plastic can only be recycled once or twice. 
  • “…six times more plastic waste is incinerated than recycled.” 
  • “Moreover, because of the glut of natural gas and the resulting boom in U.S. petrochemical production, virgin plastic is now cheaper than recycled plastic.”

In a way, recycling shifts consumption problems even more onto the consumer. You bought this piece of plastic, now you have to deal with it. However, this takes the spotlight off of the producer, the one who decides what materials are used and how this plastic object came into being in the first place. Recycling can divert people’s attention away from the root issue of overconsumption and single use items. 

Is recycling bad? No. Recycling can be a good thing, when it is used correctly and when other options are not available. However, we should not use recycling as a way to pat ourselves on the back and move on. Rather, we should seek ways to eliminate the need to recycle something in the first place; maybe we didn’t even need to buy that plastic water bottle in the first place. 

What once was the 3 R’s- Reduce, Reuse, Recycle- has been expanded by many to include things like Rethink, Refuse, and Repair. Getting creative about our purchases can also help to address this overconsumption issue (Photo Credit: Striving for Simple).

Here’s a thought: what if every time I found a Coca-Cola bottle laying on the ground, I posted on social media and tagged Coca-Cola in it? What if we rebranded companies not showing how people consumed their products, but how they disposed of them? How would this affect companies’ approach to product design, marketing, and their environmental impact? Change has to happen on both individual and corporate levels. This approach falls under Refuse, one of the expanded R’s of the original Reduce-Reuse-Recycle trio (Notice that recycle is the LAST option in this mantra). By calling attention to environmentally harmful decisions companies are making, you are refusing to support them in their current condition and encouraging them to improve. 

However, refusing certain products or participating in some of the other R’s can be difficult sometimes and not feasible for everyone. If you find yourself holding a single-use plastic in your hand, do not fear! How2Recycle has 2 sources on their website that allow you to insert your zip code and read about the recycling regulations in your area. They also advocate for better recycling labels that indicate how to properly remove labels, clean, and sort each part of the product. 

Whatever steps you can take, even if they are small steps, are important in reducing waste. Not excessively consuming is the most important step. It eliminates the need to even dispose of the product in the first place! If you do need to make a purchase, try to choose the product that will have the smallest environmental impact. Bring your reusable bag, metal straw, and personal to-go containers. Whenever I forget my reusable bags, I challenge myself to just carry what I purchased (assuming it is a reasonable number of items). You would be surprised how concerned people get when I don’t want to bag my one bottle of salad dressing. These small steps, alongside pushes for bigger corporate-level action, are what will make a difference in the long term.

So on America Recycles Day, take heart that each single-use item you refuse does matter because it is through collective action that we can make big differences!

The first addition to my new social media campaign. What are other creative ways we can engage producers in this consumption problem? #cocacola (Photo Credit: Ibo Pashaliyev).