Recycling as we know it — with the blue bins and the giant trucks that come to pick up our trash from the curb — has been standard practice across the country for about half a century. It rose to popularity thanks to a groundswell from the environmentalist movement in response to the growing use of plastic, a material made from crude oil that was promoted by the promise that it could be reused. We now know that, for the most part, plastic is not recycled. Instead, most modern conservation efforts focus on the reducing and reusing aspects of the process. It all begs the question: Is recycling worth it?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, just 8.7% of all plastic discarded in the United States actually gets repurposed and put back into circulation. The rest typically ends up in one of three places: a landfill, where it will take hundreds of years to decompose and often ends up polluting waterways; an incinerator, which releases harmful greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide; or overseas, shipped to developing countries that often do not have the same environmental protections the U.S. does that require waste to be handled and disposed of properly.
It’s a tough pill to swallow, given how many people duly try to navigate the often opaque and frankly random process of sorting through their trash and determining what can be reused. Each city and municipality has its own rules about what can and what cannot be recycled, often dictated by the facilities that the community has invested in to handle discarded goods. Many cities have curbside pick-up for recycling, much like trash collection, while others require residents to drive their waste to a specific destination. Move a few streets over, and you're liable to find yourself guided by a completely different set of rules for recycling.
A survey conducted by the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) in 2019 found that 23% of Americans think navigating the recycling rules in their city is more complicated than filing their taxes. The result of this is that many Americans participate in something called "wishcycling” — tossing anything that seems like it should be recyclable into their bin without checking to make sure that is actually where it belongs. While this is often well-intentioned, it is also self-defeating. Throwing goods that can't be recycled into your recycling bin can result in the whole load getting thrown out for fear of contamination. According to the National Waste and Recycling Association, about 25% of all the goods that Americans try to recycle end up in a landfill anyway because they are too contaminated to be reused.
“Think of plastic as a precious resource, instead of a disposable mess, and refuse it when you don’t absolutely need it. Reuse it when you do.”
All of that can feel incredibly discouraging and can result in some people simply abandoning the cause altogether. While 94% of Americans support recycling, just 34.7% of waste actually gets recycled properly, according to the EPA. Meanwhile, according to a survey conducted by Harris Poll, 66% of Americans say that if recycling isn't made easy for them, they simply won't do it.
But while recycling in the U.S. is far from perfect, it is absolutely essential, according to Dominique Browning, director and co-founder of Moms Clean Air Force. “It is definitely worth the effort to recycle. It makes a huge difference," she tells Mic. "Pay no attention to the fossil fuel propaganda that says otherwise."
According to Browning, reducing waste is one of the easiest and most direct ways that individuals can take action on climate change. Think of it this way: The fewer goods you buy that produce waste, the less you have to worry about how that waste is handled. If you’re confused about how to recycle your plastic, simply ... buy less plastic. “Think of plastic as a precious resource, instead of a disposable mess, and refuse it when you don’t absolutely need it. Reuse it when you do,” she says.
There are certainly hurdles to this. It requires being a conscientious consumer, working to avoid the type of wasteful packaging that now often litters store shelves because it is so cheap to produce. It also can be a financial constraint; cheap packaging often results in cheaper goods that can be stored longer, and many people are not privileged enough to be able to avoid these products.
For those who can manage it, though, Browning suggests "flexing your purchasing power” by buying products with recycled material or frequenting businesses that have made commitments to recycling. “With every purchase, you boost demand for products made with recycled content,” she says. It's also worth noting that businesses likely produce waste on a much larger scale than you do as an individual, so supporting companies that go green can have an even bigger impact than what you do at home.
Even if it's not possible to completely cut out the waste that comes along with the goods that you buy, it is still possible to shrink the amount of waste you produce. While we often think about how to discard the packaging that food comes in, Browning suggests thinking about how we get rid of the actual food itself.
“Food waste, the biggest component of solid waste in landfills, is not only appalling in a country where children go to bed hungry, but it's a significant source of climate pollution,” she says. “When food decomposes in landfills, it produces methane. ... So the less food that goes into landfills, the less methane [they] produce.”
She recommends trying to plan meals in advance when possible, and utilize freezer space to extend the life of foods that you aren't going to be able to eat immediately. She also recommends “creative cooking” with leftovers, a practice that can help you squeeze additional meals out of foods and keep them from ending up in the trash.
“This is a problem that the [top] 1% has caused.”
While recycling programs have lots of work to do to actually maximize their potential, the practice still has a net-positive impact on the planet. Samantha Kappalman, the vice president of strategic communications at the Recycling Partnership, says that recycled goods require less water and natural resources than producing new goods from raw materials, in addition to producing less greenhouse gas emissions. She also notes that recycling supports 757,000 American jobs annually.
It’s a self-fulfilling system, too: the more people who participate in recycling, the more clear it is that there’s demand for these programs, which ultimately leads to more investment in the recycling process. "To better protect the planet, we should all want to waste less and recycle more," Kappalman says.
While there is plenty we can do as individuals to help the planet, Daniela Ochoa, the founder of waste management group Regenerative Solutions, says that individual action can’t be the primary strategy. "This is a problem that the [top] 1% has caused," she tells Mic. So while it's important to do your part, it's also worth directing energy and focus "to make the leaders at the top take the bold decisions, stop the subsidies [and] the favoritism, and implement the right policies to address climate change to the scale urgently needed."
That includes improving recycling programs to make them more accessible and ensure that goods are being reused as much as possible — but it also includes cracking down on the companies that are creating so much waste in the first place.
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