Recycling has long been perceived as the primary method of engaging in environmentally-friendly practices. After all, its benefits include reducing the amount of energy it takes to produce new materials as well as reducing the amount of materials which end up in landfills. On top of its environmental advantages, recycling is also very convenient. All it takes is throwing a piece of paper in a green bin to engage in a social good – or does it?
Unfortunately, recycling does, in fact, sound too good to be true. Although recycling can prove advantageous in occasional circumstances, the way in which the American recycling industry operates combined with the habits of those who recycle results in an inefficient path to sustainability.
Two of the significant inefficiencies of recycling are that ~20% of processed materials end up going into a landfill and 91% of plastics do not get properly recycled. This is largely due to logistical problems in regards to the American recycling industry, as different local recycling sectors handle different recyclable materials. For instance, one local community may be able to have those living within the community recycle all plastics, while another community only manages 3 of the 7 distinctions of plastics within the U.S. This is completely understandable and manageable on its own, but coupled with the public’s lack of knowledge of their local communities’ recycling capabilities, many individuals recycle plastics which cannot be dealt with properly by their local recycling station. Consequently, these plastics become unnecessary trash.
Another contributing factor as to why so much recycled material ends up in landfills is because there are non-recyclable materials that enter recycling bins. The lack of information pertaining to what can and cannot be recycled is also responsible for this problem. However, it does not only pertain to plastics. Generally speaking, Americans are ill-informed about what materials are appropriate for recycling. For example, Mitchell Pham, a student studying environmental science, cited his family recycling greasy pizza boxes. This not only contributes to confusion for those who sort recycling, but the greasy pizza boxes can damage other previously-recyclable materials (i.e. by making them oily).
The perception of recycling as a convenient and already-simple mode of solving our waste problem not only reinforces an inefficient system’s continuation, but it additionally reduces research, innovation, and investment in new technologies to actually solve the waste problem. In other words, recycling’s expediency creates no incentive or reason to try and improve upon existing methods of dealing with waste. Given recycling is not as efficient as it is thought to be, this keeps the Western world in a cycle of utilizing a system which does not work nearly as effectively as it should proportional to the waste created. On top of preventing innovation, the convenience associated with recycling causes individuals to view waste as an insignificant problem, thereby perpetuating mass consumerism. A study conducted at Boston University confirms this phenomenon, as a group which wrapped a gift with a recycling bin present used 2-3 times more material than that of the group with no recycling bin present. The problem with mass consumerism, given the Western world’s market economies, is that the increased and constant demand for goods leads to overproduction of materials, which further leads to more waste and landfills.
If recycling has its pitfalls, does that mean recycling as a whole is completely obsolete? Not necessarily. Although most recycled materials will likely make their way to a landfill anyway, recycling the proper materials increases the time it takes for the materials to eventually be dumped in a landfill. So although recycling is not the surefire method of solving environmental problems and improving sustainability, it does still have a net positive impact on the environment. The only question remaining is how to make this system better.