Climate solutions,  Creating social change,  Enviro-tips

Let’s do better than Recycling

Apparently there is now a National Recycling Day. When I learned this I thought: What a wrong direction! Why the heck are we celebrating recycling, when it is such a wrong-direction, broken system?

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle

Many of us learned the three R’s jingle in grade school. Do you realize that it is in priority order?

Reduce is the ultimate. It is the only answer to our biocapacity problems. We, in first world nations, need to reduce what we buy, reduce what we consume, reduce the materials we extract from the earth. We cannot say that more plainly.

This should be the goal of environmental action. Let’s celebrate all that we reduce. But more on that in a minute.

Reuse is the second sister. For everything we have bought: how can we reuse it, and reuse it, and reuse it … until it’s truly falling apart and used up.

Concepts like Repurposing are a subset of Reuse. An example of repurposing would be cleaning that old applesauce jar and reusing it to carry your snack. Or filling it with water, and using it to sprout roots on mint stems. Passing your kid’s t-shirt to another child, and another child, and another child, until it’s good for nothing more than a dust rag. Challenge yourself to get creative: How many times can you reuse a thing before it truly falls apart?

For bonus points, purchase only things that are made of compostable materials. When you’re done reusing, you can compost it and help build your local soil. (Note: “compostable plastic” is greenwashing. Pay attention to what the material breaks down into. I wouldn’t want that junk in my organic garden soil.)

Real Recycling

Now we get to Recycling, the distant cousin to the other two. First, let’s define recycling.

Remember the old glass Coke bottles, the classic curvy ones? They are a good example of recycling. You would go to the grocery store and buy your six-pack of Coca-Cola (it came in a cardboard six-pack holder, none of that plastic kill-the-dolphins nonsense). You’d take it home and enjoy your treat beverage. Next time you went back to the supermarket, you’d take your empty glass bottles back to the store.

When the truck brought new product from the Coca-Cola bottling plant to the grocery store, the truck driver would collect the old empties, and take them back to the bottling plant. The glass bottles would be washed and sanitized and inspected, then put back into the system to be refilled, recapped, and sent out to grocery stores for another round. You’ll notice that this initial part of the cycle was a cycle of continual Reuse. Those thick glass bottles could put up with many cycles of reuse, with minimal inputs to keep the cycle going.

Eventually however, a bottle would get chipped or damaged. At that point, the bottling plant would pull the chipped bottle out of the Reuse cycle, and recycle it. They would melt down the glass (glass melts at a relatively low temperature compared to plastic, which means it takes less energy, and generates less emissions), and they would form it into a new bottle. Old glass became new glass. That is recycling. The newly recycled bottle would then go through multiple reuse cycles.

The key word here is cycles. True recycling describes a cyclical system: matter flows around in a circle, again and again and again.


But at some point through the years, Coca-Cola and peers decided they were above all that. They started producing little plastic nightmares. 80% of these never make it into the recycling bin. For those few that do, it is still a sad process.

Because of the nature of plastic resins, a clear plastic bottle cannot be melted down and formed into another clear plastic bottle. Instead, those few plastic bottles that make it into a recycling bin are shipped to the seaport, packed onto a ship, and sent overseas, hopefully to a place that will receive them and do something with them. (see Story of Stuff video about the receiving end of all this plastic junk.) Hopefully, they put the plastic bottles through a shredder, then melt them down (a highly energy-intensive process). The mixed plastic resins can then be used as filling for a pillow, or to make one of those lumpy park benches.

This is not truly recycling. This is more appropriately called downcycling.

Let’s be honest about the true nature of the so-called “recycling” system that is currently being promoted in the U.S. The reason we have recycling bins at all is because our most of our landfills are at capacity. Waste management experts are desperate to find ways to encourage diversion, to keep categories of things from going to the landfill. That’s why we have green bins for garden waste, to divert those materials from going to the landfill. And, we are encouraged to divert from the landfill our hazardous materials, and, in some municipalities, our plastics.

Recently, nations like China refused to accept any more additional incoming “recyclable” plastics from places like the U.S. That means there really isn’t a destination for all the collected plastic junk, which means waste management is in crisis, and they are having to accept it into the landfill anyway.

Meanwhile, how did we get into this nightmare? Because the bottling companies figured out the plastic is lighter, and they could outsource all the garbage. Why should they accept it back and go through the bother of cleaning it up and refilling it, when they can just send it all outbound in a cheap plastic bottle? (Let cities’ waste management departments deal with it.) It’s all driven by corporate profits.

When waste management realize the problems they were in and began diversion efforts, the big corporations generously piled on to the “recycling” idea, to preserve their business model. Now we have city recycling projects to support the broken business-as-usual framework.

This is not a cyclical system. This is a linear system, an extractive system, which worsens our situation with respect to Biocapacity and Social Justice as well as worsening the climate situation.

Despite pressure from activists, bottlers like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and many others refuse to do anything to change their plastic output. In fact they have doubled down on their intentions to produce more.

So now we’re celebrating this mess?

Celebrate the restoration of cycles

If we’re going to celebrate recycling, let’s stick to the true meaning of the word. Celebrate those processes which work like the old glass coke bottle did: glass becomes glass, with minimal travel, and minimal energy inputs.

For sure, we should celebrate every time we restore a cyclical system.

(note: one of the easiest, most local cyclical systems you can participate in is composting all of your food waste.)

What can we do about the brokenness of the “recycling” system?

  1. Acknowledge that this broken system is totally greenwashing. There is nothing green about our current industrial recycling process. True recycling is same-to-same, for instance that glass-becomes-glass example. But that’s not what’s happening, so let’s quit kidding ourselves.
  2. Focus our efforts on striving for plastic-free lifestyles, join in the zero plastic movement, refuse to buy plastics.
  3. Become activists, joining the campaigns to create laws which require take-back from the corporations who insist upon producing this junk.
  4. Boycott the corporations who are the worst offenders, starting with Coca-Cola and PepsiCo. We can begin shifting our purchases to conscientious suppliers: buying unwrapped food, buying our soaps from vendors who refill the same jar, buying from suppliers who reuse packing materials, supporting organizations which accept packaging materials for reuse.
  5. We can remind each other that, because of Biocapacity, the ultimate goal is Reduce. (There’s really no way around it.) Reduce consumerism, reduce consumption, reduce the quantity we buy, which will in turn reduce the quantity that is extracted from the earth. But of course that’s the last thing the big corporations want us to do.
  6. Rather than celebrating a corporate-created, corporate-enabling, broken system, let’s take steps in a life-sustaining direction. Restore cycles. And, for sure, celebrate when we do!

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