Since elementary school, I remember that mantra of “reduce, reuse, recycle’ being constantly drilled into our brains as being the number one way to help our planet. And recycle we did! Milk jugs, lunch trays you name it. Us 5-12 year olds were the kings and queens of recycling, and we really felt that we were making a difference. And we were! …right?

During my Interior Materials class, we had lengthy discussions on what it truly means to be a sustainable material, and how our design decisions affect the greater scheme of things. It was during this class that my professor gave an analogy about recycling that truly changed my perspective, and stuck with me ever since:

“Imagine you are in your car on the highway, traveling at high speeds. All of a sudden, the vehicle in front of you comes to a jarring stop. What’s the very first thing you do?”

Of course everyone was shouting things like slam on the breaks, veer to the right, and other typical defensive driving tactics.

“No,” he said, “First, you must take your foot of the gas.”

He went on to explain that recycling is much like this scenario. It’s been clear for years that we as humans have been wrecking this planet, generating infinite amounts of waste. The concept of recycling seemed like a great solution…at first. While true, it does take post consumer product and break it down to give these materials a new life; reducing our need for resource extraction, and ultimately deferring a waste stream temporarily. But what really goes on during this process?

To recycle a product takes a significant amount of energy. It must first be transported from your home to a recycling facility. We assume this to be a local one, but the truth is, we as americans are accumulating so much recycled plastic, we have it shipped overseas just to process it! Then it must go through sanitation and sorting, in which a large percentage is rejected from even continuing on in the process. This is due to the most common method of collection, commingled bins, in which all types of materials are collected together. Commingled bins combined with miseducation on actual recyclable products causes contamination of materials, meaning your previously recyclable items will be ultimately rejected. From there, the lucky materials that make it through must undergo extreme temperatures and conditions to boil it down to a consistency ready for reuse. The products then made from these post-consumer materials are often of a much lesser quality, therefore destined to immediately go back into the cycle, or potentially even a landfill. Not to mention, the entire process is a huge source of pollution, undoing the benefits of recycling in the first place!

The point of this goes to show that recycling is merely a temporary solution. It served its purpose and has helped to find a way to reduce the amount of waste we produce on a daily basis. But that’s all it is. Its taking our foot off the gas. But now, more than ever, we need to put our foot on that brake. Hard. So what can we do?

We can begin by reducing the need to make the decision between landfill or recycle bin in the first place. For starters, we can do our best to find zero waste options or ones made from more sustainable materials. Not everyone has the access or the funds to make the switch to zero-waste, bulk only purchases. But it can be just as simple as skipping your grocery purchase on those pre-washed, packaged baby carrots, and instead reaching for a simple bunch off the shelf! Second, we can begin analyzing the waste we produce to see if it can find a new purpose directly in our home. Instead of tossing that empty tub of yogurt, maybe it can be used as tupperware for your morning oatmeal? Lastly, we can start buying honest, quality products that can stand to be reused time and time again, reducing the need to ever dispose of it.

These concepts are so fundamental to the understanding of sustainability, but can be crucial in the education to the larger population. We must show others that it is simply no longer enough to recycle and call that your contribution to saving the planet. We must be more considerate and conscious of our actions, and find ways to improve the efforts we already make. Of course, I am NOT perfect. In a house of 3 girls, I honestly would be scared to join #FuturisticFebruary because with the amount of waste we still produce, I’m not sure we’d have space in our tiny apartment to hold onto all the waste we’ve generated! But the most important thing is that I continue to try. If you want to learn more about the hidden truths about recycling, explore one of the many links below. Surprised by any facts you find? Chat with me in the comments below! I’d love to hear ways that you all reduce your waste, including depending on that recycling bin.

If you do want to continue recycling, follow these helpful tips:
  • Look up local regulations on which materials are accepted in your area. This helps  reduce the probability of contamination, and reduce the energy used in transportation of items you know will be rejected
  • Wash out those food containers!
  • Be careful not to include potentially hazardous materials. This includes anything from batteries to chemical cleaners that can make their way into the composition of newly generated products.

More to explore…

Your Recycling Gets Recycled, Right? Maybe, or Maybe Not

14 thoughts on “The Truth About Recycling

  1. Hi Victoria,

    I thought your post was very compelling. No one ever tells you how much of what you recyle is actually viable. And now I feel more conscious about the things I throw out.

    A way I try and stay sustainable is through reusing utensils. My girlfriend bought me a reusable set of bamboo silverware that I take with me out to eat. I now notice how many plastic spoons and knives I used to use before this. It’s been a real game changer!


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