One of the habits we in the U.S. have frequently been proud of is our recycling. Lots of us do it. It’s often one of the first projects students adopt to green their schools. The 3 R’s of Reduce – Reuse – Recycle have become a fond and familiar refrain. We feel good that we can buy stuff and then send the packaging back to become something else, instead of ending up as trash. Tossing that bottle or can into the bin has become almost second nature — something we do without thinking. And Oregonians are especially proud of our bottle bill, which is undergoing some changes, so that people will be inspired to recycle even more.
Recycling as planet-saver is a great cultural myth, but it’s not the reality. The issue is much more complex.
In its Fall 2007 issue, Co-op America focuses on trash. An especially interesting article in this issue (though I think all their articles are terrific) is the one on “Following the Waste Stream.”
As the article mentions, glass and aluminum can be “perpetually” recycled and paper can be “downcycled” into lower grade products (until the fibers get too short to bind together). (Downcycling means recycling the material into a product of lesser quality.) Plastics are another story. Plastics can only be downcycled into something else once – and that’s only for certain plastics. And the thing that it’s downcycled into can’t be recycled or downcycled.
The article reports that most plastics can’t even be recycled, even though they carry that renowned symbol on the bottom. And even some plastics (and other recyclable materials) that get sent to recycling centers end up in landfills or incinerators. I learned from the article that plastic bags (though I try to avoid them as much as possible anyway), which are happily recycled by so many – are more likely than not shipped overseas, where they end up in incinerators and landfills (so our eco-friendly efforts are contributing to the pollution of other countries).
In No Impact Man’s post a couple months ago, he blogged about how recycling isn’t enough and shared a great video clip from a guy at Cornell University that demonstrates the difference in recycling and landfill rates for water bottles using…a torrent of water bottles. They make a really interesting sort of waterfall effect.
As Co-op America points out in their “Getting to Zero Waste” issue, and No Impact Man elucidates in his post of 42 ways to not make trash, certainly, recycling is important; but, the more important and essential goal is not creating trash in the first place. Zero waste.
How do you reduce waste in your life?