Recycling rates are the highest they’ve ever been. It’s become the most popular green habit above all others, embedded into the psyche of most working households. Why? Well, unlike the options of flying less or cutting our meat consumption to save the planet, recycling doesn’t require any significant behavioural changes to our 21st century way of living. Besides the task of putting recyclable waste into a different coloured bin, it doesn’t impact the way we go about buying, using and throwing away. As the world recycles more, it keeps on consuming just as much. Recycling has become disassociated as an act that feeds our throw-away culture, and is misinterpreted as the saviour to our ever-growing war on waste. Today, recycling, composting and incinerating are all answers focussed on how we handle our waste – not the fact that we are wasting so much in the first place. 

Is recycling making us more aware about how much we unnecessarily consume, or is it giving us a guilt-free excuse to keep consuming more?

Whether a material is recyclable or not could influence our decision to purchase it in the first place. For those with planetary health in mind when making consumer choices, seeing the recycling symbol imprinted on a tempting single-use item can justify buying the packaged sandwich or bottle of water. This companies selling the products know this – businesses are now investing in sustainable packaging for their products because of the sales boost that comes with it. The same behaviour applies when it comes to overconsumption of recyclable items, too. A recent study focussing on the behavioural link between recycling and resource consumption demonstrates how we sometimes use more disposable items when the option to recycle is available than if it wasn’t. The study demonstrated how more paper towels were used in public washrooms when a recycling bin was present, instead of a normal garbage can.

It is the belief in reincarnation for the contents of our recycling bins removes the feelings of guilt associated with throwing stuff away. It’s assumed that what we recycle goes to a recycling facility and is granted another life that maintains just as much, if not more, use as its original form. Maybe those plastic tumblers did fulfill their destiny of becoming recycled brick huts in a poor country, or perhaps they’re interwoven into the recycled polyester of my new jumper. It’s not entirely radical to assume; some of our recycled goods do make it to another life, and replace the need to manufacture new materials – but not many.

Recycling isn’t working with the efficiency needed to benefit the environment. According to the EPA, only an estimated 25.8% of waste in the United States is recycled, with much of it being shipped to poorer Countries which don’t have the facilities to process the materials. Additionally, and what’s not often communicated, is that plastic can only be recycled once or twice before becoming un-recyclable. Plastic is usually down-cycled into fabric or some kind of building material, and its recycling potential is over.

This isn’t to discourage recycling. Recycling is a great thing. It’s an invaluable technological innovation that works to avert (or delay, in some cases) growing landfills and using ever-depleting natural resources. It’s a key component of the circular economy model. But it should be one of the most minimal activities we need to do. Instead, it’s become a dominant solution to unsustainable resource extraction and consumption.
The misleading mission of recycling is becoming dangerously misunderstood and isn’t addressing the issue at its heart. Like many other current solutions for our damaging imprint on the planet, it is a band-aid fix. It masks the true cause of the war on waste: mass production driven by mass consumerism – not the colour of our garbage cans.