In the mantra “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle;” it is important to note that recycle comes last. Even in this phrase synonymous with “being green,” a clear hierarchy of waste processes exists. As a cultural value, recycling drives ecologically friendly behaviors. Recycling is a useful tool to instigate cultural and behavioral shifts surrounding how people think about and participate in environmental sustainability. But, as a waste process it lacks efficiency.
Like many environmental health issues, recycling is complex. It complicates our traditional view of how one ought to go about saving the planet. Recycling alone is not a solution to our excessive waste accumulation and over-consumption. It is not always an efficient way to process waste. Problematically, recycling is often thought of as something inherently ecologically friendly and is thought of as a “green” activity more than a waste process.
Recycling, like landfilling, is an industrial waste process, meaning it uses energy, emits by-products, and can potentially create dangerous working conditions. Recycling does sometimes fail to provide our society with a successful pathway to environmental sustainability. Recycling isn’t enough, but in our current disposable product economy, it is necessary. Recycling is mostly a system of economy, policy and psychology operating together.
Economically, recycling can encourage the production of more disposable goods, and policy often supports those industries (particularly the infamous Bottle Bill Ban, a state battle over nonreturnable bottles).
Psychologically, recycling is perceived as a “no-harm” practice and often disturbingly dissolves the waste hierarchy of “reduce, reuse, recycle.” For example, instead of utilizing a reusable bottle, one may find it just as acceptable to purchase multiple disposable ones as long as they are recycled. In terms of efficiency, recycling keeps items out of landfills longer and does reduce the need for new virgin materials. But it doesn’t eliminate this need or ultimately prevent landfilling.
Many items, especially plastics, are down-cycled, meaning they are not remade into their original form. A thin plastic bottle is not destined to return as a plastic bottle unless virgin materials are added. Instead, it will likely become something else, like carpeting or fabric. In this process, much energy is lost.
Whether an item is tossed in the recycling bin or the trash can, it still goes “away.” Recycling education must focus on unveiling the process of recycling and recognizing educational opportunities for reduction and reuse.
Ultimately, the answer on the grand scale of environmental sustainability is not to recycle more, but rather to produce and consume less. As a society, our goals should be set for a zero-waste world in which recycling and landfilling in their current dirty manifestations do not even exist.