Last Updated on November 6, 2023 by Carolyn
Is Recycling a Sustainable Waste Solution?
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Most of us want to do our part towards being sustainable. We’re happy to chuck empty plastic bottles in the recycle bin and sort out other recyclables such as paper and glass. But is this effective? Is recycling a sustainable waste solution or do we have wool pulled over our eyes?
In this post, I discuss what recycling does and doesn’t accomplish, how to be an eco-friendly consumer, and how to be a better recycler.
So is Recycling Sustainable?
Most of us have heard opposing statements about recycling:
Recycling naysayers argue:
“Recycling doesn’t work: Most of what you put into your recycling end up in the landfill. It’s just another cost to taxpayers.”
While proponents of recycling state:
“Recycling saves land from being turned into landfill, saves energy and preserves raw resources.”
Who is telling the truth? Let’s examine facts to find out.
Recycling directs waste that would otherwise end up in landfills to manufacturing processes where material can be reused and made into new products.
Per the EPA Americans on average produce over 4# of trash per year, with an annual 1.5 tons per person being added to landfill. That’s 500 million tons of trash going to landfill every year, in just the USA.
Preserves Raw Materials
Recycling 1 ton of paper saves 17 trees, 380 barrels of oil, 4,100 kilowatts of energy, 3 cubic yards of landfill space, and 7000 gallons of water.
Consider that the US uses over 65 million tons of paper a year. If all our paper was made from recycled material we would save over a billion trees a year, and 45 trillion gallons of water a year. This extraordinary figure doesn’t even factor in the water savings that come from leaving those trees growing and helping to prevent water runoff
Less Energy is Used to Produce Recycled Products
Per Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade,
“Any time you use renewable resources or secondary resources, there’s less carbon emitted than if you use primary resources.”
The Perception that Recycling is Enough
The biggest downside of recycling is that people think recycling is a solution to our waste problem and therefore don’t curb their consumption, nor implement the other two r’s of waste management; reduce and reuse.
The 3Rs of waste management: Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle, are listed in order of importance. Note where recycling is listed.
The cost of getting recycled products from consumer to manufacturer is enormous and often is more expensive than importing raw materials from less developed nations.
Recycling is labor intensive and most of these jobs are low paying and less than ideal working conditions. In an economy with low unemployment, filling these positions becomes a challenge.
So is Recycling Sustainable?
I believe it’s safe to argue that recycling is sustainable and not the shame some people believe it to be but we shouldn’t view it as our sole waste solution and should always seek to reduce and reuse before turning to recycling.
How Can We Do Better?
Recyclers are the Minority. Despite schools teaching recycling from an early age, only 32% of Americans recycle, even though 94% say they support recycling.
Why is this number so low? Those who don’t recycle cite the following reasons for not recycling:
-Not understanding what can be recycled
What Can We Do To Turn These Numbers Around?
Ease of Access
79% of Americans have access to curbside recycling, so is convenience really an issue or just an excuse? Sadly, many Americans have a “What’s in it for me” attitude, needing monetary incentives to take action to do anything.
A good example is Colorado’s 10-cent bag fee implemented in 2023. Prior to this law, only a minority of shoppers brought their own bags shopping. Now it’s only a slim minority who don’t bring their own bags. A tax of less than 1$ per trip was enough to incentivize the public to take positive action and use reusable bags.
We must educate the public on environmental matters and raise awareness of how vital it is that we stop polluting the earth. Environmental matters shouldn’t be tainted by political platforms, everyone should prioritize taking care of the environment regardless of political associations.
Our raw resources are limited and when they are gone they are gone for good. Don’t believe it, ponder the following:
In the mid-nineteenth century, wild herds of buffalo roamed the USA with estimated numbers totaling 30-60 million animals. By 1884 that population had been decimated to 325 animals! With conservation efforts, there are now approximately 20,009 wild buffalo roaming our plains, and another 450,000 or so animals in commercial operations. It took about 30 years to decimate the population and over 100 years to rebuild the population to what it is today, which is at best 1/60th of what it was.
Eliminate Guesswork From Recycling
Do you know what the following label means?
I’m an avid recycler, and I wasn’t quite sure what it meant. It looked to me like this product wasn’t recyclable but I wasn’t sure. A trip to recycle.info’s website still didn’t make it obvious. I would expect an easy-to-find glossary of symbols but I had to dig for it.
What does the label mean? This product packaging is not recyclable. But if you read the fine print it says only 20% of communities have the resources to recycle this item. That leaves a burning question in my mind- how do I know if my community is one of those 20%?
Recycling labels on products should be easy to understand as should curbside recycling instructions.
If in doubt about whether something can be recycled call or email your local recycling provider and ask them. I recently had questions about whether plastic caps and paint cans were recyclable here, and I was able to get an answer with one email.
Reduce and Reuse Before Recycling
How Do We Go About Reducing Consumption and Reusing?
Reducing consumption is pretty straightforward, it just involves being aware and making smart purchasing decisions.
Here is a list you should consider before purchasing items:
- Can I borrow or rent this somewhere: Often we need something for a one-time use such as a tool for a special project. Does it really make sense to buy it? Ask friends or family members if they can loan you the tool, or failing that see if you can buy it used on Craigslist or Facebook marketplace.
- Only buy what you need. It’s easy to fall victim to 70% off sales but are you really saving anything if you buy something you don’t need?
- Disposable Goods: Can I buy a product that I can reuse instead? Using shopping bags and refillable water bottles falls into this category as does eliminating kitchen single-use products like plastic bags.
- Choosing Products that are Packaged in an Eco-Friendly Manner: A trip down the local grocer’s produce aisle reveals a ton of waste: Apples and potatoes in plastic bags, chopped fruit in plastic containers, salad in bags, etc. Let your buying habits be your voice and buy produce without wasteful packaging.
- Avoid Take-Out and Fast Food: Slow down, and either pack a lunch from home or consume a meal in a restaurant. Take-out and fast food packaging is really wasteful. And at the restaurant, skip the plastic straw or bring your own reusable straw.
Change our Household Habits
A conscious change in our habits at home can yield a sizable reduction in waste produced with the added benefit of also saving you money! Here are some suggestions:
- Reduce paper and ink consumption by saving digital copies of important documents instead of printing them out. If you have to print them print double-sided.
- Reduce energy consumption at home by installing a smart thermostat and turning down your thermostat at night.
- Instead of buying books, visit your library or check out digital copies on your favorite e-reader. Some libraries even have tool lending!
- Compost food scraps, you’ll appreciate how much less messy your garbage is when you compost.
- Don’t do unnecessary laundry, clothes can be worn twice!
About 99% of what we purchase ends up in the trashcan within 6 months.
Isn’t that crazy?
We are in an age of if something breaks toss it and buy a new one. But we can change this trend.
Fix things When they Break
We recently took in a shelter puppy. She had a passion for chewing charging cables. No matter how diligently we tried to hide them, she’d find them and chew the ends off.
I was going to order new cables but stopped and thought about it. All I had to do was reconnect the wires, so instead I bought heat shrink tubing and went about fixing the cables.
There is a sense of self-accomplishment in fixing instead of tossing, give it a whirl.
Look for Alternatives
There was a box of shop cloths in our shop and they ran out. Again I was about to order new ones when I stopped and thought about it: I frequently clean out my closets and toss very worn clothes in the trash, so why not use those as rags instead? I save money doing this and reuse an item destined for landfill.
Other suggestions for Reusing Items:
- Don’t be afraid to regift something given to you. It’s better the item find a home where it can be used rather than collect dust and serve no useful purpose in your home.
- Of course, clothes that you have outgrown or simply don’t like can be donated to your local thrift store, as can many household items. It doesn’t have to end up in the trash. You can also use local buy-nothing groups to rehome your unwanted goods. In the last year, I’ve rehomed printers, phones, and canning pots!
- Repurpose worn-out clothes into reusable shopping bags, mats, hair ties, etc. Browse Pinterest for ideas you’ll be amazed at just how many ways there are to reuse old clothes.
Test Your Recycling Knowledge with this Short Quiz
Myth or Fact: Buying bottled water is OK if I recycle the bottle.
Recycling water bottles is not sustainable. Every time plastic is recycled it is downgraded until it becomes unrecyclable. A better choice would be to use a reusable water bottle.
Myth or Fact: If I don’t know if something is recyclable or not, I should put it in the recycle bin.
This is called Wish-Recycling and is a big problem. Throwing items that aren’t recyclable into the recycle bins just makes more work for the sorters, and even worse can break equipment by becoming tangled in it. If you’re not sure, it’s best to throw it out.
Myth or Fact: Using recycled materials in manufacturing processes uses less energy than using raw materials.
Making a product from recycled materials almost always uses less energy than making it from raw materials.
It’s About Being Better Custodians of Our Earth
There is no reason not to recycle. If we want our children and grandchildren to enjoy the Earth as we have been able to, we need to start changing our ways. It’s not hard, a few simple changes in habits will go a long way to making our World a better place to live in.
Do you have an idea you’d like to share on recycling, reusing, or reducing? Please share it with other readers in the comments below.