By Sarah Barney
What do you put in the recycling bins? Paper? Glass? All grades of plastic? Everywhere has recycling: stores, the side of streets, and at the Nature and Wildlife Center. Recycling has the potential to reduce carbon emissions and keep millions of pounds of trash out of the landfills, and it appears to be an easy individual climate-friendly action that people can do. But in reality, it ranks low on environmental impact. Recycling programs differ depending on the place, and it's confusing. This confusion, as you may have assumed, is exclusive to plastics. Only 11% of plastic is recycles, whereas 25% of glass and almost all paper is recycled.
The issue with plastics stem from the different grades of plastic, which depends on their composition and strength. The grade is indicated by the number in the Mobius Loop, the triangular three arrow symbol. Some plastics are food grade, meaning they are safe to come in contact with food or drink. Other plastics are extremely strong like CD containers or auto parts, but not all grades of plastic are recyclable. Just because there is the Mobius Loop on the bottom on plastic products doesn’t mean it can be recycled.
The myth that all plastic is recyclable originated from the 1960’s. Before that, plastic was utilized for making long-lasting products, like pianos or radios, more affordable. In the 60’s however, the plastic industry began to create single use plastics, and consequently, taught people how to litter. Instead of decreasing the number of single-use plastics, the plastic industry told people they weren’t throwing away the plastics correctly and they needed to recycle. Yet, that didn’t solve the problem.
When you recycle in a municipality, the trash is sent to a Material Recovery Facility This is where the recycling is broken up into categories (paper, metal, glass, and plastic) and sold to different facilities depending on the material. Aluminum and glass can be remelted and reused repeatedly without losing its strength, making it a continuous loop. On the other hand, plastics weaken when they are remelted. This means that they can only be recycled once and are usually turned into products like clothes or carpet, ending the cycle. There are other plastics like bubble wrap, Saran wrap, or plastic bags that can’t be recycled at all. They go straight to the landfill.
If you’re feeling frustrated and hopeless, you’re not alone. But there are other individual climate-friendly actions that you can do that have a greater impact.
- Recycle intentionally. In other words, don’t recycle for the sake of recycling. Instead, make sure check if the product can actually be recycled and to clean the container.
- Eat more veggies. Plant-based products require far less carbon and water to grow.
- Cut out single-use plastic consumption. Get reusable bags, cook more, and stop buying plastic water bottles.
- Cut food waste. Stop filling up landfills with food waste. Learn how to compost (it’s great for your gardens!).
- Bike and walk more. It’s cheaper and greener.
Sources and Further Reading
How Useful is Recycling, Really? - E.A. Cruden
Recycling! Is it BS? - How to Save a Planet
Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - Environmental Protection Agency