What Failure Taught Me: is recycling really a lie?

When I challenged myself to be “plastic-free” for a week, I expected a really exciting, satisfying outcome. “Look!” I would tell myself at the end of it, “That was so simple! I can live like this forever.”

Blame it on the way 21st century life is designed, blame it on human error, or just blame it on me particularly—whoever is deserving of blame, the outcome remains, that the week was unsuccessful.

Part of the quick unravelling came from the fact that, after the first couple of days, I felt great about how things were going. It seemed that my only disposable plastic use was with snacks like granola bars, or miscellaneous things I hadn’t thought of before, such as plastic seals on various products (i.e. lip balm, a bottle of gin, etc.). The only other plastics I used were recyclable, and so they weren’t really doing any damage, as far as I was concerned – since my goal was to keep waste out of landfills, I was in the clear so long as I could recycle or compost. And so I couldn’t help but be suspicious. Why was this so easy? Surely I was missing something important, there had to be a struggle to this.

And so there was. For quite awhile (let’s say a year or so now) I have occasionally heard here and there that recycling is a lie. Open-minded person that I am, I have responded to this negativity by covering my ears and singing to myself until the perpetrator of this tragic news gives up and moves on. I figured that stories like that were yet another excuse people found to not try to contribute to ecological betterment in their community. As far as I could tell, some parties were convinced that recycled items often end up in the landfill, leading one to ask the question of why anyone should attempt to recycle in the first place, given that it seems to be a waste of time. I read this as pessimism and lethargy. Sure, occasionally someone will dispose of something incorrectly and put a non-recyclable item in a recycling bin, but does that mean we should give up? Does that error mean that people should not cling to even this tiny, marginally helpful sense of responsibility towards the health of the planet? I saw it as a sign that people would really try anything to get out of helping.

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And in a way I was right, and in a way I was wrong. As soon as I started researching this, I realized that what I had been trying to ignore was not only very real but also very personal. I appreciate now the irony of the way that I was trying to ignore a difficult truth just as others purposefully ignore the larger horror of the environmental crisis as a whole, but perhaps that is a discussion for another day. More to the point, I found that while recycling is not, on the whole, a myth, it is a systemic disappointment.

In the United States, approximately one third of recycling gets shipped to recycling facilities overseas, particularly to China. Besides the obvious downside in the enormous carbon emissions it takes to transport these materials across the earth, the contamination standards in China are such that a lot of recyclable items are not accepted, either because they are dirty (being 0.5 percent impure or more) or because the country has banned those materials, such as mixed paper or post-consumer plastic. 

And of course, this is one of the best-case scenarios, given that much of what is recycled in the United States does not make it to a recycling center, much less one in another country. An estimated 25 percent of the recycling collected by Waste Management is ineligible for recycling, and is sent to a landfill. In addition, recycling is expensive, and is oftentimes a process run through private companies, meaning that in some parts of the country (particularly in rural areas), higher expenses to get recyclable items to a recycling center lead to them, too, being taken to a landfill, clean or not. 

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A new term for me is “aspirational recycling” which is precisely what it sounds like, and is a major contributor to batches of recycling being ineligible for processing. When individuals cross their fingers and attempt to recycle items without checking to make sure they are accepted materials in their locality, they run the risk of ruining whole shipments of recycling, or causing damage to recycling warehouses. People attempting to recycle things as disparate as bowling balls and animal carcasses can put the whole process at risk. I couldn’t help but think about the images I have seen of stockpiles of recyclables sitting in warehouses, at risk of catching fire. In the moments of pure frustration, I do ask myself what the point of it all is. Why do we recycle if there’s a good chance it will all be shunted to a warehouse, or carried across the ocean, only to be disposed of?

The positive part of me answers that doing something is better than doing nothing. If we completely give up in even the attempt to do a bit of good to alleviate some of the waste we deposit in the earth, where are we heading? As it stands, our global community has spoken quite clearly in our disdain for any lifestyle outside of one motivated by convenience. As many “green” marketing campaigns and re-usable grocery bags as are circulated, there are far more instances of needless waste than the planet can handle.

So in this downward cycle we have generated, how do we pull ourselves out? In the context of personal material consumption, I would argue that for my own purposes, I am going to make an ever-more concerted effort to not use items that cannot be repurposed. I know I will slip up but in the end, my goal is to make this habitual. I will train myself to be a person who simply does not consume a lot of disposable items. I know it is possible because I am, of course, not the first person to have had this idea. It will be difficult, but I’m up to the challenge. And so, I believe, is everyone else. 


by Megan Embrey