Recycling Won’t Save Us From The Plastic Crisis

Nothing quite sums up recycling like this quote: “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

Recycling may feel like you’re solving the world’s plastic problem, but when you dig just below the surface, this “eco-friendly” option has a multitude of problems.

Don’t get me wrong— recycling is a crucial step in environmentalism and has high potential, but we cannot rely on it to fix all of our problems. We cannot recycle our way out of the world’s plastic crisis. And, that’s just the tea.

The problem with recycling
Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels

But, this isn’t the part where we throw in the towel and give up. On the contrary, this is when we buckle down, figure out the root of the problem and act on our ignorance. This is the time where we finally repay Mama Earth and do all that we can to protect her. 

If you’re like, “Shelby, I love the enthusiasm, but I have NO idea where to start,” then just hold your horses right there. I’ll explain everything you need to know about this little thing called recycling, and I’ll even tell you how you can inspire environmental change in your own life!

But, first, let’s break down the problem with recycling…

Let’s acknowledge that we never really had a handle on plastics in the first place

the problem with recycling
Fred Dufour/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Back in the day— like, two years ago— China passed an anti-pollution campaign saying that it no longer wanted to be the “world’s garbage dump.” They were recycling about half of the world’s plastic and paper waste for 25 years until that all came to a screeching halt, leaving the West without a means to dispose of their copious amounts of trash

Sending plastics to China was economical for countries like the U.S. because it ended up being cheaper to export plastics instead of recycling them at home. From 1999-2016, the U.S. exported 26.7 million tons of plastic to China, with Japan and Germany closing in on the race.

But, the details get deadlier. Researchers found that from 1950-2015, humans had generated 8.3 billion tons of plastic, with 6.3 billion tons of said plastic ending up as waste. That means only 9 percent of plastics had been recycled in that 65 year period. Twelve percent were incarcerated and a whopping 79 percent went straight to landfills.

Oh, and 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in the oceans every year

When China took the world’s garbage, it gave us an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. It’s not like we halted our plastic use when China announced they would no longer take our trash. So, what’s happening to our plastics now?

I’m sorry to break it to you, but your recyclables aren’t being recycled

how to recycle correctly
Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

Americans recycle 66 million tons of plastic per year, one-third of which is usually exported. Since China is no longer taking a third of our recycling (which still equals 22 million tons), where is this plastic going?

It depends. Some are getting recycled. Some are going to U.S. landfills.

And, some plastics are being exported to Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia, none of which have a fraction of the infrastructure as China, making recycling unachievable.

Basically, rich countries want to pay someone else to take on its plastic problem, and the poorer countries are taking the bait. But— and here’s the catch— all those tons of plastics are sitting in illegal dumpsites where they will most likely live their long 400 year decomposing cycle, or be illegally burned off.

We keep our side of the world clean while simultaneously trashing South East Asia. C’mon, clearly this isn’t sustainable and completely f*cked up. 

Here’s the problem with recycling at home…

how to recycle correctly
Photo by Lisa Fotios from Pexels

Roughly 90% of plastics aren’t recyclable. Do you ever think about this when you’re recycling your own plastics?

Most likely not, and you’re not alone. When single-stream recycling systems came into effect in the late 90’s, the idea was to make recycling easier for the consumer. No more separating by plastic type or glass color!

This level of convenience wiped out consciousness in recycling, leading to high contamination rates and straight up appalling recycling practices. 

People, with good intentions of course, throw anything that they think could be recyclable into their recycling bin “just to be safe.” While the good intention focuses on not excluding any potential piece of recyclable material, it actually screws up the entire system. 

Single-stream recycling systems just aren’t cutting it…

paper recycling
Photo by Alex Fu from Pexels

The Container Recycling Institute found that while a single-stream recycling system increased participation, it costs roughly three dollars more per ton to maintain than dual-stream recycling systems (which requires the separation of paper and plastic). Since the U.S. recycles 66 million tons of plastics each year, that’s a yearly cost of $198 million just for the sake of convenience

About one in every four items placed in a recycling bin isn’t actually recyclable, meaning 25% of our efforts are falling flat. People with good intentions throw materials like food waste, plastic bags, rubber hoses, wires, low-grade plastics and items that just straight up aren’t recyclable into their recycling bins with a “hope for the best” mentality. 

These good intentions create enormous problems for recycling, like an increased processing cost and cross-contamination of other recyclables. If you throw a greasy paper plate in the recycling, it has now contaminated all the other recyclables in the bin, not including whatever it touches as the recycling plant.

If you’re going to remember anything, remember this: the more contamination, the less that can be recycled.

Oh, and remember China’s anti-pollution campaign? They are now only taking recyclables with a maximum 0.5% contamination rate. That’s a far cry from our 25% of contaminated recyclables.

So, what’s the solution to all of this?

Let’s just hold up a mirror to ourselves real quick.

The world is suffocating in trash, and you are part of the problem.

Let’s say it again: you are part of the problem. You, myself, your neighbor, your mom, your best friend, your mentor, your teachers, your boss, our world leaders— everyone is responsible for the plastic crisis.

Once you take on the world’s plastic crisis as your own, then real change can begin!

With that being said, we have to rewire not only how we consume, but also how we recycle.

While facing the world’s plastic problem can be hauntingly overwhelming, it’s important to focus on the little changes you can make in your life. Instead of trying to be the one hero who saves the entire planet (Superman, are you there?), we can team up together and make profound change just by making our lives a little more sustainable.

1. Cut out single use plastics

infographic about how to use less plastic
Infographic by @scriberian

At this point, the less waste you can create the better. 

Take notice of how much plastic you use on a daily basis. If you’ve never paid attention before, you’re in for an unpleasant surprise. 

The entire world completely depends on plastic. While it may seem like this is the way it has always been, plastic is relatively new. It wasn’t until WWII that plastic became an integral part of our lives.

So, let’s get back to our roots and start cutting out single-use plastics by:

  • Using a reusable coffee cup
  • Shopping with reusable bags
  • Dining-in instead of getting food to-go
  • Pledging to not buy any plastic water bottles or soda bottles
  • Using plastic-free beauty products
  • Using tupperware instead of plastic Ziploc bags

2. Recycle correctly and with intention

infographic about recycling coffee cups

The most common recycling mistakes are:

  • Recycling materials contaminated with food
    • You must rinse out and remove all traces of food before throwing your recyclables in the bin. 
    • Pizza boxes, and other food containers, covered with grease can’t be recycled. 
    • Always rinse out bottles, tins and containers before throwing them in the recycling.
  • Leaving on plastic water bottle tops
    • Some recycling centers take plastic bottle caps, others don’t. Check your local recycling guidelines for more information about this hotly debated topic.
    • If you’re unsure, squeeze out the air of the bottle then put the cap on. 
  • Recycling coffee cups
  • Diapers
    • I don’t know who needs to hear this, but your dirty diapers are NOT recyclable. Stop being gross and throw that in the trash. C’mon, think about the people at the recycling center who have to sort through your kid’s dirty diapers!
  • Putting recyclables in a plastic bag
    • Putting your recyclables in a plastic bag causes sorting problems and can jam recycling equipment. 
    • Put your recyclables loosely in the bin without wrapping them in a plastic bag. 

3. Lead by example

Anybody who uses Instagram knows that influence is a powerful tool.

But, what about life outside of your phone screen? Well, that’s where real and intimate leadership takes place.

People constantly compare themselves to each other both consciously and subconsciously. If your spouse, friends or children see that you are making sustainable changes in your life, they’ll subliminally get that message and think twice about their actions.

You not only have to talk the talk, but you have to walk it, too. By showing up for the environment in your life, you are influencing those closest to you to pay more attention. 

4. Raise awareness

infographic about what is recyclable

We need all hands and voices on deck. 

Share information on your social media platforms, educate those in your life about how they can make small and impactful environmental changes, speak up if you see someone recycling wrong, and don’t ever hesitate to talk about the pressing issue of the world’s plastic crisis.

It’s not that people are unwilling to help. Rather, most people are unaware of the severity of the problem and what they can do to turn things around. 

5. Elect politicians who support environmentalism 

Show up to local and national elections and support government leaders who promote sustainability. This isn’t the direct route to inspire environmental change, but we definitely need more politicians who support with the environment. Between collective individual action and government backed support, we can truly inspire change.

But, this needs to happen far sooner rather than later. So, show up to local and national elections and exercise your right to vote!

Closing thoughts: recycling is super important, but it won’t save us on its own

Let me make one thing clear: recycling is critically important! 

When done correctly, recycling is an ample opportunity to conserve energy and reuse materials for a second life. However, we truly mess up the system and commit a total disservice when we blindly recycle with the mental backing of good intentions.

Stop hoping that your efforts will create change and start knowing that what you’re doing is directly helping the environment! Through education we gain knowledge and competence, which is the golden ticket to inspiring actionable change.  

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