Why Recycling isn’t the Answer

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Moving towards a Zero Waste Lifestyle has been a real eye-opener for me. I mistakenly thought that recycling was the answer to our global waste problem but having researched this area I’ve learned that this is very far from the truth.

Recycling Leads to MORE Waste!
The report ‘The Effect of Recycling versus Trashing on Consumption: Theory and Experimental Evidence‘ which was published by Monic Sun, Remi Trudel from Boston University in May 2016 indicates that ‘the positive emotions associated with recycling can overpower the negative emotions associated with wasting’ and that this can lead to people being more wasteful than if recycling was not an option.

Unneccessary Production is Inherently Wasteful
The production and transportation of raw materials and products uses up energy and resources, which is fine if it’s something that we really need, but do we really need plastic packing around our aubergine or yet another plastic Christmas decoration wrapped in cellophane?

Waste Collection contributes to Climate Change
The trucks that collect your green (recycling) bin typically run on fossil fuels and so every time we put them out for collection we’re contributing to climate change  😦

Recycling uses Precious Energy and Water
Recycling isn’t an environmentally positive process.  It requires energy and a huge amount of water, which becomes waste water at the end of the process that needs to be recycled or disposed of. Also recycling can’t reclaim all of the energy embodied in an item, so even if something is fully recycled we’re still worse off from an energy point of view than if the item was never produced.

Also when paper is recycled, it’s all mixed together into a pulp. That pulp is washed, cleaned, and then pressed into new paper sheets. During that process, wastes like paper fibers, inks, cleaning chemicals, and dyes are filtered out into one giant pudding known as paper sludge. This can be mixed with anything, which has the effect of turning it into a ‘product’ which is often burned or sent to a landfill.  Some argue that making virgin paper from managed forests is less energy intensive and less polluting than recycling paper.  (Source: Listverse)

Recycling or Downcycling?
It’s a misnomer to say that plastic is recycled, it’s actually downcycled. Due to contamination from liquid, glue or paper plastic water bottles are not recycled into new plastic bottles, instead the plastic is more likely to end up in polyester carpet or as recycled clothing. On the face of it this doesn’t appear to be a problem but can i ask you when was the last time you bought a carpet / toys / clothing that was made from recycled plastic? Just because something is possible doesn’t mean there is a market for it. 

Similarly recycle paper is not used for most paper products. Instead it’s downcycled into recycled toilet paper and glass that’s isn’t separated into colours is used in sand blasting rather than being recycled into new glass bottles.

Your Green Bin isn’t enough
There is a huge amount of misinformation out there about which plastic are collected for downcycling. Having contacted my local bin collection company i found out that they can sell the following plastics onto companies for downcycling; plastic types 1, 2 and 4. If i want to have plastic types 5 (polypropylene) and 6 (polystyrene) downcycled then I have to take them down to my local recycling centre. Unfortunately plastic type 3 is not collected for downcycling by either my bin collection company or my local recycling centre.

Aggravatingly enough a lot of producers and stores in Ireland don’t put the plastic type on their packaging. This makes it very hard for the consumer and the waste sorting company to know what’s downcyclable and can mean that downcyclable plastic may end up in landfill just because of a lack of information. In my experience Aldi is the worst offender and seemed completely disinterested in addressing this when i contacted them about it.  According to my local bin collection company plastic film that doesn’t crinkle when scrunched up are most likely ldpe and can be downcycled, whereas film that crinkles like a crisp bag it is likely to be PE and not recyclable in the green bin.

Downcycling isn’t Guaranteed
Although aluminium foil and trays are fully recyclable I’ve been told by a waste sorting company that the aluminium outlets don’t want them because they’re often contaminated by waste and that they only want aluminium drink cans. This means that the waste sorting company has to balance the amount of non-can waste that goes in this stream and send any excess to landfill or incineration. This is also true for aerosol cans and metal tubes use for toothpaste, purees or creams.

Also small pieces of recyclable material are often sieved out at the start of the sorting process and go straight to landfill or incineration. Similarly the plastic labels on plastic bottles are typically downcyclable but because they’re not of interest to the plastic bottle downcycling companies they’re typically sent back to the waste sorting company for disposal in landfill or by incineration.

Health Risks from Contamination
Recyling is a messy business. Consumers often put stuff into recycling that shouldn’t be there in the first place and if they put in something that contains a toxin, like paint in an aerosol can, there is a chance that this could contaminate aluminium that goes onto to become soda cans. Also BPA coated paper that ends up in recycling could be recycled into toilet paper, which we end up using on our delicates!

Why are things such a mess?
It’s clear to me that successive governments put their energies into encouraging recycling rather than support moves to a low-waste lifestyle and now that a whole industry has been created around recycling they’re invested in its continuance.

I also think that the huge amount of misinformation makes it very hard for those of us who genuinely want to support a circular production cycle. For instance did you know that waxed paper and most receipts aren’t downcyclable? Wax parchment or greaseproof paper are not downcyclable because the coating on the paper makes it impossible for the paper mill to convert the paper fibres into pulp as part of the downcycling process. Similarly most modern receipts are thermal paper coated with BPA plastic which prevents them from being converted to pulp. Concerns over the health implications of BPA plastic is might suggest that it would be best not to put them into the composter too.

I think the lack of correct information about downcycling or is for two reasons; producers aren’t obliged to give correct information on their packaging and most people don’t really want to think about waste and just want it out of the house.  My local bin collection company who informed me that 30% of the waste they collect for recycling is not recyclable at all and we all know households that put EVERYTHING in the recycling bin without giving a thought to whether it’s recyclable or not.

Are you feeling overwhelmed about how to tackle this problem? Don’t be, check out my post on Six Weeks towards Zero Waste and become part of the solution.

E

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4 thoughts on “Why Recycling isn’t the Answer

  1. Pingback: Six Weeks towards Zero Waste | living lightly in ireland

  2. Thanks Elaine. From someone who feels guilty and overwhelmed by the whole waste/ recycling thing and have often thrown everything into the recycle bin hoping that it would all end up magically, ideally, repurposed.

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    • I have done that too. There are days when it is just too much. I think we should cut ourselves some slack on those days and focus on the good choices that we already make. The world generally isn’t ready for pioneers 🙂

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