We Need to STOP Recycling!
By Janis Norton,
Manager of The Urban Farm.
Scrolling through social media is a real challenge lately. Not even touching on the political minefields, the reality of what we need to do to make a difference on our planet can be overwhelming. Recently, one news article caught my attention because if I don’t do anything it will be costly in a mind-blowing number of ways – and I know that I CAN do something immediately. Basically, I need to stop recycling. I mean it. I can no longer, in good conscience, fill up my recycling bin
What recycling means
The word ‘recycle’ basically means to convert something into reusable material (I Googled it). This worked well for glass, paper, aluminum, and steel for a while. The items were sorted out of our garbage into a process that moved the basic materials back into a manufacturing stream and did two major things: 1) it reduced our need for the raw materials, and 2) it reduced the amount of trash going into our landfills. A “win-win” most would say.
We’ve become accustomed to sorting our plastic containers, papers, and in some places even glass, into bins that are usually blue (although for some strange reason my city uses brown). Even people that don’t spend any time in the now-expected-community-practice still know what the bins are for. And, though this is a common practice in all major cities, I am amazed at how many people did not realize how much of a difference this made on our landfills.
Why this is challenging and not living up to expectations
The problem is that the materials need to be separated from trash and even more importantly – the food remnants. This process takes time. Sadly, many many people don’t rinse out or even just scrape their containers clean, so when the plastics do get to the processing center they are disgusting. There is too much trash and not enough man power to sort this efficiently and cost-effectively so the process became one of sorting as much as possible, compacting, and then shipping off to another place for more processing. In some sorting centers they just toss the food encrusted containers into the waste pile.
The amount of recyclable material still getting into our landfills is disheartening to even consider. According to SaveOnEnergy.com, in America we produce on average 4.4 pounds of waste per person every day. They did the math to come up with astonishing numbers of how much waste per person in each state.
The goal of the article was to show how recycling was helping reduce the amount of waste going into landfills. But this research will need to be recalculated after this year. Things are changing again and our recycling is not working the way we thought.
Where is it going?
I have understood for a while that, for most major cities, this compacted bundle would be shipped off to another country where their labor was cheaper and the processing could be done with the materials still being worth the cost. One major recipient of containers of mostly recyclable material in need of more processing is China. Or at least it was until recently.
According to one recent news piece, we recycle 66 tons of material each year, with about 1000 shipping containers going to China every day. But effective the beginning of this year they no longer want most of our shipments (NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt). Where can we put this growing pile of discards? We don’t have the processing capability to reclaim the base materials and turn it into a resource for manufacturing. We are going to end up adding this into our landfills. And then we are going to wonder why we pay the cost to sort something that is not going to be used.
Cost and effect
Recycling is something that has tendrils in so many places. Raw materials cost money to obtain, process, and move to its next step of use. Financial markets all have raw materials on their boards and are watched by global markets. Environmental costs can be extreme when obtaining raw material at the beginning, processing the materials into a useful form can affect the environment in those locations, and then the cost of dealing with all the waste at the end. Labor is a cost in all of these processes.
Recycling is supposed to save on some of this, but it adds in other ways as there is a full infrastructure just to keep these materials out of the landfills and in a material stream. Politics are wrapped up in any major process and this is no exception – and political plays tend to add costs despite our best intentions. If our recycling infrastructure weakens, slows, or stops all-together, there will be a cause and effect cascade that a huge majority of us cannot even comprehend.
We need to stop recycling.
Until our waste system infrastructure comes up with a better solution, we need to revisit what we are personally recycling as well as the overall waste streams going through our homes and businesses. We need to do our part and just STOP recycling. We don’t do this by throwing everything into the trash – we do this by changing what we bring into our lives.
I urge you to take a good look at what you are throwing into your recycling bins and looking for better ways to carry whatever that container carried. GO to those markets and stores that allow you to bring your own containers. CHOOSE those containers that you can re-use or re-purpose. SUPPORT those businesses that make wise choices and allow you to do the same. STOP buying online and adding cardboard containers to your stream. GROW your own fruits and vegetables as much as possible. FIND ways that work for you to make these changes.
I am going to change my habits
My own home is a great place for me to start. I’ve already started bringing my own drinking container when I go out to eat – no more single use plastic cups or straws. We’ve tried to make our purchases in the largest containers possible – making sure we consider the viability of the product. We will work to be better on this. Reusable bags at the grocery store, and I am looking for a store that will allow me to bring reusable containers. We don’t drink a lot of milk, but there is a local milk company that allows us to recycle glass containers. And my adult children know better than to bring a styrofoam drink cup into the house.
Find your own inspiration and solutions
Here are some resources from our archives: Podcast episode 102: Beth Terry on Living and Gardening without Plastic. Blog article by Tayler Jenkins with a make at home DIY Zero Waste Kit. Blog article by Mara Yates explaining what the numbers on plastic mean Low Down on Plastic Numbers. And of course Farmer Greg has solutions too with his blog post An Easy Way to Make a Difference.
Little by little, step by step, and even stumble by stumble, I know I can make a difference. You can too!
Some of the links in our podcast show notes and blog posts are affiliate links and if you go through them to make a purchase, we will earn a nominal commission at no cost to you. We offer links to items recommended by our podcast guests and guest writers as a service to our audience and these items are not selected because of the commission we receive from your purchases. We know the decision is yours, and whether you decide to buy something is completely up to you.
We save every cardboard box (for ground cover w/mulch on top to season) except those that are printed with shiny ink. Those do not compost well & may poison the soil. We save string (plastic & cotton) from dog food bags & birdseed bags. String does come in handy once in a while. We also save the kitty treats plastic containers to plant tree seeds, veggie seeds, herb seeds to get them started before they are planted or (with the trees) go into bigger pots until they are big enough to be planted in the ground. I take one container & drill holes toward the bottom, fill with soil & plant & take another to place beneath the soil filled one to have the excess water drain into it. Temptations brand kitty treats plastic containers fit well inside each other so no need to buy trays for water run off.
Glad you have the time to do all this but most people do not.
David, you are right that taking extra steps to reuse products take extra time. However, if it matters to someone they can make time. It is a matter of changing habits and the way you consume. It’s not realistic to think that everyone can stop by a bakery to get bread without a plastic bag or to go to a dairy to get fresh milk, but for those of us who live close to those amenities and can change our consumption habits , and those little changes in habit end up making a sizable impact. With my family of five we go through at least three loaves of bread and two gallons of milk a week. Think about how much plastic waste isn’t put in the landfill by just changing the way we consume two items. Baby steps are the way to go in my experience.
Wow! This article taught me that recycling was not really what I thought it was. Thanks for doing the research to show that recycling is ultimately not a lot better than throwing things in the trash. Like you said, we need to work on changing the way we waste materials more than worrying about sorting out plastics.
Carefully managed landfills are ok with me. Put all trash in them, save money and drop thinking you are going to destroy the planet by producing trash
Great article Janice. Most people have no idea how to properly recycle.
Catchy title! I was like, WHAT?? What does she mean? But, you’re right. We really need to think and act before we buy.
Taking our own shopping bags with us to the store and putting all fresh produce into ONE plastic produce bag can really help as well. I love that some stores are now carrying compostable bags in their produce departments. I then use those in my small compost bin in the kitchen. There are SO many ways we all can help that will make a difference.