We all try to do it, and it’s easier than ever. But is recycling really worth the effort?
By Alice Hailey
In the Western world, people have generally got the message about recycling. Over the last 10-20 years, we’ve stopped throwing everything into landfill and have begun to take more responsibility for tossing recyclable materials into separate bins. In fact, in some parts of the world, people now have nearly half a dozen different bins to recycle everything from plastic packaging to paper to food to glass bottles.
But…is recycling really worth the effort?
The sad reality is that over half of the items we put into the recycling bin aren’t even recycled at all. In the USA, only around 9% of all plastic is recycled, and what is given a second life is likely to have a huge CO2 footprint, as it’s probably shipped to a developing country for sorting and processing. In fact, we pass off such a huge quantity of trash labelled as ‘recyclable’ to other countries that they are starting to refuse it – China and the Philippines being the two most current examples.
Businesses in particular are reluctant to recycle because unlike households, they’re often charged for baling cardboard and other waste, and whilst costs are high now, these are expected to increase in the future. That’s discouraging, because businesses generally create more rubbish than the average household. Oh, and be careful you throw out the right kind of plastic into your bin, as even a small amount of the wrong type can cause an entire batch of recycled plastic to become contaminated.
So, does that mean we – households and businesses alike – should stop recycling altogether? Or is there a better way?
Is Recycling Really Worth The Effort?
If you think your bottles, packaging and tins just go into some magic recycling machine that makes them into other materials, well, you’re wrong. Here’s what generally happens when you recycle say, a plastic bottle:
1. Materials are collected from household bins. These are usually mixed plastic, paper, and aluminium that need to be separated by companies (and it’s not cheap to do so!). Around half of all materials received by the recycling company are not actually recyclable due to being the wrong type of material or too dirty, and will be incinerated or thrown into landfill.
2. When the plastics have been separated from metals and papers, they’re then sorted into type of plastic and sometimes, colour.
3. The plastics are run through a shredding machine. Afterwards, the shreds are washed, dried and melted.
4. The melted plastic is transformed by a large machine into flakes, which can then be spun into a very fine ‘thread’ like cotton candy.
5. These threads are used by industry to make a wide variety of products, from clothing and carpets to packaging and new bottles.
The saddest part of this is that even when used materials are perfectly and easily recycled, they tend to be made into ‘lesser’ products. A plastic bottle, for example, may be processed into unrecyclable packaging materials that end up in landfill. So, recycling often only delays the inevitable pollution by say, one disposable product’s lifetime.
Greenwashing Is Rampant
The problem with today’s current recycling programs is that they just don’t work. As mentioned above, half of all rubbish tossed into ‘recycling’ bins isn’t actually recycled, but it does give the consumer the sense of satisfaction that it’s ‘ok’ to buy stuff in plastic packaging because it can be recycled – though often, this is not the case.
The best example? Coffee shops like Starbucks, Tim Hortons, Dunkin’ Donuts etc all have recycling bins in store for their coffee cups. They ask customers to throw out organic waste in one bin, coffee cups and plastics in another, and paper in another. But guess what? Apart from Tetrapaks, one of the most un-recyclable items we use every day are takeaway cups. Why? Because they’re lined with a fine film of plastic that’s impossible to separate from the paper cup- and which doesn’t biodegrade.
And if that’s not bad enough, consider this: a whopping 6.5 million trees are cut down each year, just to make takeaway cups. Think of how many entire forests that is! If you love coffee and tea on the go, please always bring your own refillable cup (and that goes for water, too – take your own thermos with you!)
After all, is recycling really worth the effort when you can eliminate the need for disposable products in the first place?
A better solution is obviously to cut out plastic altogether from the product’s lifecycle. Plastic only became popular in consumer markets around one generation ago, and we did just fine without it before.
But since younger generations are more accustomed to using this material, we should be using only biodegradable plastics made from plant based materials. These do exist, and they are fairly cheap to make. The problem is that the plastics industry is tightly connected to the petroleum industry, which is still very powerful.
Alternatively, the responsibility for recycling plastic could be placed where it properly belongs: in the hands of the manufacturers. If they are forced to pay for the disposal of their own products, you can bet that they’ll quickly switch to the cheapest option, which is often reuse.
For example, glass bottles were once the only option for purchasing soft drinks, and because the manufacturer could re-use them, deposits were left. So, if you bought a Coke for £1, you’d also have to pay a 10 cent deposit fee, which would be refunded when you returned the bottle to the shop. The bottle would then be collected by Coke to refill.
This is called a closed loop recycling system, and it’s older than you think. The same system was used by milk delivery trucks to refill milk bottles when the stuff was sold in glass. It’s only recently that drinks have been packaged in Tetrapaks (which are 100% non-recyclable) and plastic bottles. A closed-loop recycling process, on the other hand, ensures we get the maximum amount of use out of any material, reducing the amount that ends up in landfill.
Tech Can Help
Within 20 years, I predict that there will be a closed-loop recyclability index (CLR) displayed on every product, indicating both the sustainability of the manufacturing process and the cash value of the packaging once recycled using an appliance like ReCircle. Just like ingredient labelling on food, the CLR will influence what we as consumers decide to buy.
As with plastic alternatives, technological innovations can further help to reduce waste. For example, the ReCircle appliance uses sensors to identify and segment different types of plastic, glass and metal. The appliance then washes and grinds the recyclable materials for storage in its base. These pure materials are then picked up by recycling companies, and the best part? The recycler is reimbursed for the weight of recycled materials.
Appliances like this encourage all of us to recycle by offering monetary incentives, and since they only provide pure, recyclable base materials, they are a key step towards achieving 100% closed-loop recycling and helping to empower households to make purchasing decisions which take into account a product’s lifecycle assessment – after all, if you could buy product A which isn’t recyclable, or product B for the same price – but you’d be helping the planet and getting a bit of extra cash when you use the ReCircle app…well, the choice is a no-brainer.
The Future Is Sustainable
So, is recycling really worth the effort? The answer is yes – kind of.
Metals and paper are much more easily recycled than plastic, and for that reason, I believe the latter should be completely phased out of most consumer products. After all, it’s plastic, not paper or tins, that has cause an island of waste three times the size of France floating in our oceans!
The worst part of plastic recycling schemes in general is that the public doesn’t think twice about consuming stuff packaged in plastic – the attitude is ‘oh well, I can just recycle it.” But as I explained above, plastic is a problem. Period.
Fortunately, people are becoming more aware of the problems with recycling, and are demanding change from their governments. For example, in January 2019, UK Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to eliminate the UK’s plastic waste by 2042, and many countries, including Mexico, England, Burma, India and Rwanda have banned free plastic bags in stores. But how do we ensure such promises aren’t yet another greenwash? After all, the UK already said they were banning free plastic bags, but those are still readily available in any supermarket – the 3 cent charge doesn’t really deter anyone from using them.
Still, my vision of the future is a positive one. More innovative technological solutions and plastic alternatives are being created all the time, and it seems Generation Z is particularly enthusiastic about ending plastic – after all, it is their future.
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