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Why Recycling Isn't the Answer

Story of Stuff - A Drop in the Ocean - Circular Economy

Since I started on my zero waste journey, I’ve found that when I tell people I’m trying to be zero waste, more often than not they respond with “Oh that’s cool!  I recycle everything - my recycling bin is always so full!” And it’s not surprising. I think back to elementary school when I first learned “Reduce, reuse, recycle.”  Although “recycle” is the last on that list, it was the clear star of the show. Our society has such a strong focus on recycling that we tend to think it will save the earth.  While recycling is better than not, it’s not the save-all that we make it out to be.

A Drop in the Ocean - Why Recycling Isn't the Answer

In fact, studies have shown that when recycling options are available, we consume more disposable products.  This is also true of food waste and the availability of composting. Our brains are pretty cool, but sometimes they make poor decisions without us even knowing.  On the one hand, it’s great that our brains want us to dispose of our trash in a better way than sending it to landfill. But on the other, wouldn’t it be great if, instead, our brains wanted us to eliminate trash in the first place?

The phrase “zero waste” can be overwhelming to many people.  “Zero” is a pretty absolute word. But what zero waste is really aiming towards is a circular economy, meaning that resource consumption is minimized and products are completely reused at the end of their life - closing the loop on consumption and waste.  The Story of Stuff posted the above photo on their Instagram account a couple weeks ago.  To me, it perfectly sums up the difference between recycling and zero waste.  Recycling is a great first step towards less resource extraction, but in the end, most of those recycled items are going to landfill anyway.  What we should be working towards is a zero waste, or circular economy.

A Drop in the Ocean - Why Recycling Isn't the Answer

To make matters worse, the United States exports a large portion of its recycling to China.  Or, it used to. Late last year, China implemented a recycling ban by refusing all plastic and paper recycling from other countries.  This has now been extended to include much more than just plastic and paper, and it’s causing problems all across the globe. With China refusing our recycling, we have nowhere to take it.  And when we have nowhere to recycle our recycling, it simply becomes trash.

"Right now, by definition, that material out there is garbage," she says. "It has no value. There is no demand for it in the marketplace. It's garbage." -- Laura Leebrick, NPR Interview

But all hope is not lost.  Remember that crazy thing our brains do where we consume more when we can recycle?  If we can’t recycle these items anymore, we’re going to find alternatives to them. There are solutions all around us - stainless steel and glass straws, cloth produce bags, reusable water bottles - and now more than ever our planet needs us to utilize them.

What is one single-use plastic item that you can eliminate, rather than recycle, in your life today?  Leave a comment below, so we can learn and grow in our environmental consciousness together.


China trash ban is a global recycling wake up call
Recycling Chaos In U.S. As China Bans 'Foreign Waste'
Recycling gone bad: When the option to recycle increases resource consumption
Why Recycling Options Lead People to Waste More
Worries about food waste appear to vanish when diners know scraps go to compost

Photo 1 | The Story of Stuff on Instagram
Photo 2 | Hermes Rivera on Unsplash
Photo 3 | Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

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2 comments

  • Wade

    I never use straws. Small concession in the grand scheme of things. Let me think about what else I can eliminate.

  • Karen

    I shifted my kitchen to all glass or stainless steel food and drink containers and utensils. I donated my plastic ones to Goodwill so they’d have another home. Am eager to get ideas from others :)

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