Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.
This catch phrase has been used since the early 70s in response to the wave of trash that came about from throw-away lifestyles. The phenomenon caught on with a famous commercial featuring a crying Native American watching people litter.
The campaign it was supporting, “Make America Beautiful Again,” was actually sponsored by the plastic industry, and it was trying to deal with a very big problem.
Plastic, although extremely strong and cheap, has a super long shelf life. That shelf life stretches into eternity, which means so does our trash. People were beginning to notice the huge heaps of trash hanging around in landfills and along streets, and they weren’t happy.
People were talking about banning plastic.
To avoid this, the plastic industry looked for a way they could still continue providing the throw away life style, while also passifying a growing angry mob. That’s how recycling was born.
The idea behind recycling is superb. If everyone sends their plastic in to be recycled, it doesn’t end up in landfill. New things can perpetually be made out of this returned plastic, in a closed loop cycle. Perfect, right?
Not so fast. 91% of plastic isn’t recycled, and much of it can’t be. Some of it is too difficult to recycle, and some of it can’t be. As plastics are reused, the quality of it is reduced, until pretty soon it can’t be made into anything.
Even if plastic is recycled, eventually it will be wasted, and that waste is permanent. There will always be plastic in the environment once that plastic is produced. It’s not closed loop.
Is recycling bad?
Recycling itself isn’t a bad idea. Aluminum cans for example, can be infinitely recycled and save 91% of the energy required to make a new can. They’re also highly profitable, with a ton of aluminum worth $1,491. A ton of PET plastic on the other hand, is worth just $385.
While it might be possible to do closed loop with aluminum, it’s not possible with plastic. Mixed recycling bins that let users pile all their cardboard, aluminum, and plastic compound the problem.
Many people throw what ever into the bin in the hopes it will be recycled. This has to be removed, and dirty recycling can also cause a problem, contaminating the overall product.
Wish-cycling isn’t just for consumers
Even if you properly screen your plastic for recycling, there’s a good chance it’s not being recycled. Since China and other countries have started refusing plastic waste, it has caused a back up of recyclable materials with no where to go.
In some cases, this carefully sorted plastic waste is then simply trashed. Even when the recycler sends it to a foreign country to be recycled, there’s still a good chance it will be burned or dumped instead of recycled.
How you can help
Recycling plastic has its place, for now. If it has already been produced, using it as many times as possible before it must sit in landfill is the best choice. This isn’t the only option you can do.
If you’re looking for ways you can genuinely help in your household, look towards reducing waste, particularly plastic waste. When plastic waste is unavoidable, contact the company and request plastic free options.
When there’s no other choice, recycle your plastic. Recycling is a band-aid, but still a necessary one until we can shut off the tap of plastic flowing into landfills.