Is Recycling Enough?

If asked, most of us would agree that recycling is the right thing to do.  From a logical point of view it makes perfect sense to reuse the earth’s precious limited resources as many times as possible before disposing them into the abyss of our landfills.  I grew up during the 70’s and remember quite fondly the recycling efforts from the campaigns of “Don’t be a Litter Bug” and the American Indian shedding a tear while overlooking the polluted landscape.  Those TV commercials ingrained in me the message to leave everywhere I go cleaner than how I found it.

During this same period of time the environmental groups were pushing really hard to get everyone to stop using paper bags.  The question paper or plastic was asked for many, many years whenever going through the checkout isle.  It got to the point that choosing paper would result in strange stares and looks from others in line.  We all went to plastic in an effort to “save the trees” so that this precious resource wouldn’t be gone for future generations.

Some thirty years later we are all more educated about our planet and wanting to do the right thing.  But what is the “right” thing?  Is it enough to recycle?  If you spend any time online looking up plastic pollution you will see thousands of pictures of our planet being choked from plastic pollution.  It is so bad in the oceans that there are five separate gyres which are giant areas where plastic and other debris has accumulated.  The Pacific Gyre, located between Hawaii and Alaska has been reported as being the size of Texas (that’s pretty big).  This area has about 5x the amount of plastic than wildlife.  Much of the plastic has broken down into smaller pieces and is being mistaken as food by birds and fish.  If we are doing such a great job with recycling why is this still happening?

I believe it is time we start to hold ourselves accountable and begin by asking the tough questions.  It is real easy to feel like individually we are not contributing to the plastic pollution issue because we feel so good about recycling.  Don’t get me wrong, recycling is absolutely vital to being better stewards of our planet’s resources.  However, when we really look into recycling we find that it is a word being used more to make us feel better about the situation than a solution to the actual issue.

Let me ask you a question, do you know where that packaging material goes after you place it into the recycle bin?  I think we would all like to believe that it goes into making another similar product that will then be recycled again and again, keeping the cycle going.  The truth is that what happens to that recycled material differs greatly from where you live.  After 30+ years of promoting recycling there are still large portions of the United States which don’t have recycling facilities available to business and consumers.  For those consumers and businesses which do have access to recycling, there is usually a specific kind and type of plastic, glass or paper which is accepted for recycling.  Over 80% of all the plastic in the world ends up in landfills, marine environments or as pollution.

In 2009, 84% of all plastics recycled in the US were exported to China.  Once it arrives in China the use of those plastics will vary greatly, with the worse being incinerated for the creation of electricity.

What does this mean for recycling?  Well, it means that our idea that a bottle placed into a recycle bin which makes us feel really good is not really being used in a way that we believe it is or should be.  As environmental stewards, we should be concerned and interested in making the system better.  We should get involved and support companies, legislation and recyclers who emphasize using recycled material in their second life products which can then be used again a third, fourth, fifth and so on.    This would help to create more demand for recycled material in the US and keep recycled material from being shipped overseas.