Why low waste? Part 2: Recycling isn’t the answer

The big ideas

Note: This post has been updated with new information, as of February 2020.

Welcome to my second post addressing some of the reasons why we need to reduce our waste. (Click here for the first post, all about landfills.)

As a society, we love recycling. It’s hard not to love it, when it’s promoted as such a fantastic thing: all of a sudden, it doesn’t matter that your strawberries are packaged in a plastic clamshell container, because there’s that little lovely triangle with the recycling symbol on the bottom. Put the container in your recycling bin, and it happily lives on to be made into new plastic packaging.

Except, that’s not how it works.

The problems with recycling

The recycling industry is in crisis

A little bit of backstory: Canada (and the US) used to send lots of our recycling to China to deal with. Recently though, China imposed tough new standards, and effectively stopped accepting the vast majority of our recycling, leaving it for us to deal with. Since then, other countries, such as Malaysia, have been refusing our plastic waste. (Can you blame them for not wanting to be the world’s dumping ground anymore?) It’s the reason that many Zero Waste people believe that most of what we put in the recycling bin doesn’t get recycled at all. It’s actually not crazy: there are news reports of municipalities across Canada shipping recycling to landfills because they couldn’t find other options.

(I should mention that BC’s recycling program, comparatively, is known to be excellent, but still has problems).

Overall, our recycling (especially plastic recycling) is losing value. There’s too much product with too little demand, and recyclers aren’t making the money they need to in order to do their job. Aluminum pop cans are the most valuable items, whereas cheap plastics are basically worthless.

We’re “wishcycling” 

I’m guilty of it. So are you, probably. The product looks like it should be recyclable, but it’s not.

Many single-serve yogurt containers, stand-up resealable plastic pouches (like for frozen veggies and fruits), #6 plastics, #7 plastics, #3 plastics, plastic straws and stir sticks, plastic cutlery, chip bags and other “crinkly bags,” protein/energy/chocolate bar packaging, lipstick tubes and other cosmetics packaging, plastic bags, toothpaste tubes, and way more products either aren’t recyclable at all, or need to be sent to special drop-off centres.

And just because there’s a recycling symbol on it doesn’t mean it’s recyclable where you live. Once you start investigating, you may be surprised at how little actually is recyclable (let alone how little actually gets recycled!). Again, we have way too much faith in the grand, green promise of recycling.

On a global scale, 91% of plastics don’t get recycled

In fact, this was the statistic of the year in 2018. This statistic is according to the now-famous study published in Science Advances. It’s the first study ever done to measure the amount of plastics created versus what’s actually been recycled. The researchers concluded that humans have produced 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic, with 90.5% ending up as pure waste. Here in Canada, the numbers are similar: less than 11% of plastics are recycled. The rest end up incinerated, in landfills, or worse.

New stats tell us that the recycling rate is actually declining, not increasing. Plus, we’re continuing to produce more and more plastics at a dizzying rate. We just can’t count on recycling to solve our plastic problem. Clearly, it’s not working.

We have too much contamination

Pizza boxes with grease, glass jars with peanut butter at the bottom, paper with coffee stains–it’s all contamination. And that means it’s headed for the landfill. In some Canadian cities, contamination is as high at 25%, which means we’re not recycling nearly as much as we think we are.

Plastics are crappy materials for recycling

An aluminum soda can can be recycled and made into another soda can just about indefinitely. Plastics, on the other hand, don’t hold up well. They become weaker and of worse quality over time, so they typically can’t be recycled many times. It’s why people say that plastics aren’t truly “recycled” at all: they are “downcycled.”

Or, they may be recycled into a product that cannot be recycled. For example, plastic pop bottles can be recycled into polyester textiles, but these textiles are not recyclable except for in very rare textile recycling programs that are not accessible to many people. And in the meantime, they shed microplastic like crazy.

Recycling is near the bottom of the “Waste Hierarchy”

Have you heard of the “Waste Hierarchy“? It’s a great tool that shows how we really should be dealing with items’ “end of life” and it goes something like this:

  1. Refuse
  2. Reduce
  3. Reuse
  4. Recycle/rot (aka compost)
  5. Landfill or incinerator

Basically, it’s what we’ve heard our entire lives: “Reduce, reuse, recycle” but somehow, our society has omitted the first two.

I still believe that we need recycling, and it can be a wonderful thing, but we rely on it far too much. It should be a last resort, after something can’t be refused, reduced, or reused. Remember, all plastics that we create will live on forever in one form or another in the environment.

I’ve heard this analogy before, and I can’t find the original source, so please forgive me:

Our metaphorical bathtub of plastics is overflowing. We need to put down the mop and turn off the tap.

I’ll be writing more about “turning off the tap” in my next blog post in this series. Until that time, please let me know your thoughts. What do you think about recycling? Have you made an effort to reduce and reuse, rather than just recycle?


3 responses to “Why low waste? Part 2: Recycling isn’t the answer”

  1. […] Welcome to my third post addressing some of the reasons why we need to reduce our waste. If you haven’t already, check out the first post (about landfills) and the second post (about recycling). […]

  2. Thank you for your post on recycling. I agree that it isn’t the answer at all. Something that I wasn’t aware of until recently is that BC actually DOES accept “crinkly plastic” including zip top plastic bags and pouches from frozen veggies and fruits and chip bags. This is not being recycled as we might expect into more plastics but it is being used in an alternative pilot project for turning packaging into fuel. You have to bring it into the recycle depot as it is not accepted curbside. It might be something to look into to see if you agree with. I have found it helpful as although I try and avoid extra packaging I do end up with items at times anyways and I am comfortable supporting this pilot project instead of sending these items to landfill.

    Here is the comprehensive link to “flexible packaging” on recycle BC: https://recyclebc.ca/FlexiblePackaging/

    1. Yes! Thank you for bringing this up. I do this as well; it’s a great solution for these types of materials when they can’t be avoided. As you mentioned, it’s not being recycled, but “returned” for their program.

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