The Myth of Recycling
By Elizabeth Nguyen
R-E-C-Y-C-L-E, please recycle each and every day! This song was my first formal education in sustainable living. For a whole day of third grade, we had an assembly sorting trash, singing songs, and all wearing matching green shirts with the iconic recycling logo on the back. This symbol holds meaning. It has taken off to represent not only recyclable materials, but also the broader environmental movement.
However, the concept of recycling has been purposefully marketed to be misleading. It is too often upheld as the standard for sustainable living instead of as a bare minimum or even last resort. In order for something to be recycled, it must have fulfilled its original role and transform into waste. The reason why developed nations such as the US have so much recycling – so much that we have to export it to other nations – is not so much to do with the materials but with our society. We have an extreme consumer economy in which many goods we interact with are single use.
This was not always the case. Mainstream plastic use is actually fairly recent history. Big oil and specialty chemical companies stood to make massive profits off single use items; their products propagate an unnecessary demand. However, to sway public opinion, these huge corporations campaigned for recycling initiatives. We know that plastic doesn’t really go away. It long outlives its users and takes hundreds of years to break down, often ending up in landfills and our oceans. But with recycling, when we throw out a plastic bottle and proceed to buy a new one, we can tell ourselves that the bottle will be turned into something new and erase all guilt.
Again, this is not so easy. Recycling plastic in particular is expensive – even more expensive than creating new plastics. While most plastics can be recycled in theory, they require very specific processes and to be properly sorted, cleaned and transported to the proper facility for that exact kind of material. In the end, most of the recyclable goods never get another life. The plastic industry knew the public wouldn’t like this version of the story, so they poured millions into advertising campaigns for recycling and misleading the public into thinking their waste isn’t truly waste – fueling their own profits. And we bought it. We like the idea of recycling because we don’t like to think about our actions causing negative harm to the planet. But the truth is recycling is not and can never be the answer to our waste problem, particularly with plastics. There is no quick fix to our massive consumption of goods turning to waste. The solution lies in changing the way we consume and the materials we use.
This seems promising, until you ask people to stop getting takeout containers, to stop buying individually wrapped objects, or to start carrying around a variety of sustainable containers. Humans don’t like to change our behaviors. We like plastics. And for many, the more sustainable methods of consumption are out of reach.
None of this is to say that you shouldn’t recycle. Many goods can and should be recycled. Recycling, as most things, should be taken with a grain of salt. We can’t treat recycling as the beacon of sustainability. It is a starting point. We need to be weary of the larger forces at play influencing our decisions, consumption and the consequent effects on our communities. So please, do recycle. But don’t stop there.
Author: Elizabeth Nguyen is a student at Georgetown University studying Science, Technology and International Affairs and is a Core Pathways Fellow
This blog was written following discussion on an NPR article for the Core Pathways Podcast with the Core Pathways Fellows.
Listen to the podcast here.