When I was a kid, I was told that to be sustainable, I needed to recycle. Glass, plastic, aluminum, cardboard- it all belonged in the blue bin. For years, I recycled these materials mindlessly in an effort to save the planet. However, recycling isn’t as sustainable or straightforward as I once thought, especially after China’s ban on some recycling imports left the global recycling system in chaos.
The truth is, a lot of what we put in our blue bins doesn’t even end up getting recycled. Some facilities take in more recyclables than they can handle and end up sending their surplus to landfills. Other times, facilities end up with recycling that has been contaminated, rendering it unrecyclable. This is why China stopped taking a lot of the world's recyclables- the shipments they were receiving were too contaminated. Contaminants include things like most to-go coffee cups, plastic bags, and low-grade plastics, which are all unrecyclable. Food waste is also a big contaminant, as it renders materials unrecyclable. These contaminants usually arise from single-stream recycling systems where everything is placed in one bin and consumers receive little to no guidance on what can and can’t be recycled. These contaminants make it more expensive to process recyclables, and sometimes cause them to be sent to the landfill.
The other problem is that some materials can only be recycled a few times before they ultimately end up in the landfill. Paper can only be recycled five to seven times before it’s unrecyclable, but plastic is the worst- it can only be recycled one to two times. For example, say you buy a container made from virgin plastic, and when you’re done with it, you recycle it. Assuming it actually gets recycled, it will have to be recycled into something that is made of lower grade plastic, such as a household item, because the polymers in the plastic will get broken down in the recycling process. When that household item then gets sent to be recycled at the end of its life, it probably won’t be recycled into anything because of being too low grade and not meeting recycling requirements.This creates a lot of contamination problems, as most people think you can just throw anything made of plastic into recycling. In reality, if what you’re attempting to recycle is too low-grade of plastic, it needs to go straight to a landfill, where it will take over 400 years to degrade. Because of both contamination issues and the dwindling recyclability of plastics, 71% of the world's plastic is sitting as waste in landfills or as litter in habitats.and only 9% is recycled.
This issue with plastic is also because of the complexity of our plastic system. There are so many different kinds of plastic used to make different goods that it makes it hard for consumers to know which plastics they can and can’t recycle. There are seven predominantly used types of plastics that vary in their recyclability, and to make it more complicated, all recycling facilities differ in what plastics they will take. Consumers generally either think they can recycle all plastics, or get so frustrated trying to figure out what plastics they can or can’t recycle that they throw them all in the recycling, posing a contamination risk, or send them straight to a landfill.
The good news is some materials don’t have dwindling recyclability- they can be recycled over and over and over again. Glass and metal, most notably aluminum, are able to be recycled indefinitely without sacrificing their quality or durability. This means if you’re recycling anything made from glass or metal, there’s a higher chance that it’ll be recycled and won’t contaminate batches of recycling. It also means these materials never have to end up sitting in a landfill or polluting natural habitats- they can always be reused or recycled. However, like all materials, you still have to make sure you wash off any food that is on the material when you’re recycling, or you’ll be posing a contamination risk.
The other good news is that recycling saves energy, resources, and money no matter what material you’re dealing with. Recycling aluminum is particularly energy efficient and money saving, with recycled aluminum taking 95% less energy to create than new aluminum. Making recycled materials from steel, glass, paper, and plastic also requires less energy than creating new materials, just not quite at the level of aluminum. Using recycled materials rather than new also means less raw materials and natural resources will have to be extracted, which decreases habitat destruction and emissions related to resource extraction. Saving energy and resources ultimately results in saving money, and helps mitigate climate change by reducing emissions.
Overall, recycling is a good thing- it’s at the heart of a circular economy and allows us to reuse products that are at the end of their life rather than throwing them to a landfill. It reduces energy use, lowers natural resource extraction, decreases greenhouse gas emissions, and it saves us money. However, as much as we need recycling, we also need to reduce our need to recycle by switching to using reusable, long lasting products, and we need to overhaul our recycling system with the help of circular legislation and local governmental action.
First, we need to reduce what we consume and work to reuse what we do. Stepping away from single-use products, even if they are made from infinitely recyclable materials like glass and aluminum, and moving towards reusable products will reduce the number of materials that are sent to recycling, therefore enhancing the quality of our recycling facilities. Single-use products that are made from recycled materials are more sustainable than single-use products made from raw materials, but what’s even more sustainable is using reusable products made out of materials like glass and aluminum, and only sending them to be recycled once they’re at the end of their life. By switching to a system where we predominately create and recycle reusable goods, rather than single-use, we reduce the total quantity of goods we are creating and recycling, but we maximize the amount of energy, resources, emissions and money we save.
The second thing we can do to enhance our recycling system is to make our plastic system less complex and to move away from plastic in general. Ideally, to do this, we would streamline our plastic production into two types of plastic- one rigid and one flexible- that all recycling facilities accept. This would simplify both the creation and disposal of plastic, and would make it easier for consumers to recycle, and would also create a higher market value for these plastics that businesses would want to tap in to by collecting back plastic for reuse. However, this is unlikely to happen as it would take a massive manufacturing overhaul, and all plastics are eventually rendered unrecyclable anyways, therefore the best thing to do is to avoid plastic as much as possible. This reduces recycling contamination, decreases plastic pollution, saves marine habitats, and reduces the general environmental harm caused by plastic creation.
Lastly, we need to move away from single-stream recycling systems into pre-sorted recycling systems. Essentially, a single-stream recycling system is one where you throw all of your recyclables into one bin and they are sorted after collection. While this makes recycling easier, it disconnects consumers from the process of recycling, as they don’t have to be as familiar with the different materials their local recycling facility takes. These systems are all the rage in America- a country with a failing recycling system. In countries like Wales where recycling is wildly successful, a system where consumers sort their recycling before collection is used. By having consumers sort their recycling, the consumers are forced to become familiar with what their local recycling facility can recycle, which reduces contamination rates and increases recycling productivity. To incentivize people to do this, fees are charged on garbage pickup based on weight, so consumers will take the extra time to sort their recycling rather than throwing it all in the garbage. While there is a large learning curve, these systems are proving to be at the heart of countries who are making strides towards zero waste goals.
Companies who want to tap into the money-saving abilities of recycling could prove to be the pioneers of more efficient recycling systems. Tech giant Apple is working to use no raw materials in manufacturing- they want to source all of their materials from things like dead devices and manufacturing scrap. They have a MacBook air with a recycled aluminum case, and a robot that can speedily rip apart iPhones for reuse. However, Apple will have to make a lot more strides in order to reach their goal of being 100% circular. If they have the motivation and support from investors, they could be pioneers of circular architecture in both the business and waste management world. They would have to figure out how to recover a large percentage of the products they sell once their consumers are done with them, which would require a systems overhaul from Apple, Apple consumers, and waste management services.
While recycling has its problems, we should never forget that it’s the elementary pinnacle of environmental sustainability for a reason. Recycling has enormous potential to launch us into the heart of a circular economy, but we have to tap into this potential by valuing the three R’s in order (reduce what you consume, reuse what you can, and then recycle what you need) and overhauling both our recycling and plastics system. This will take participation from business, government, academia, and consumers, and won’t prove to be easy- but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Is the blog manager for Zero Waste Club, combining her love for writing with her passion for all things environmental sustainability. She is currently a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where she is studying journalism, environmental studies, and food studies in hopes of building a career in environmental activism. You can find her on Instagram as @kaylaguilliams.