UNPOPULAR OPINION: Recycling Does More Harm Than Good

I fear that most recycling procedures today have become complacent being "less bad" than traditional waste management. That's not good enough.
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Sarah Stanley
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I fear that most recycling procedures today have become complacent being "less bad" than traditional waste management. That's not good enough.

Whenever I'm finished with a beer can, a beer bottle, or the newspaper, I throw it straight in the trash. I don't have a recycling bin in my apartment, and I don't bother with them when I'm out in public. In my opinion, recycling is little more than feel-good actions that don't cause much real, long-lasting good. Not being as bad as we could possibly be is not a good way to look after our planet

I fear that most recycling procedures today have become complacent being "less bad" than traditional waste management. That's not good enough.

"Recycle Reduce Reuse" by Kevin Dooley (CC BY 2.0).

"Recycle Reduce Reuse" by Kevin Dooley (CC BY 2.0).

A few years ago I heard a lecture about Michael Braungart and William McDonough's revolutionary book Cradle to Cradle. After reading the book, I went from being an avid recycler to the anti-recycler I am now.

Unfortunately, it doesn't fit well into the fun, alliterated slogan of "recycle, reduce, reuse," but a word that better captures the process we're describing is "downcycling." Simply put, a product is taken, rearranged, and turned into a notably inferior product. Recycling isn't the self-sustaining loop of product to same product that the symbol with the arrows makes it out to be (in most cases).

Plastics are extremely difficult to reuse. Melting "recyclable" plastics weakens the polymer bonds and new, never been used plastic must be added to the compound. Writing for the Huffington Post, Lisa Kaas Boyle points out that "[v]irgin plastic must be added to the degraded plastic to make new products." Most plastic products are not created with recycling in mind. They're created with the intention of being tossed in the garbage. Often these products are a mix of materials. Boyle gives the example of razors that are made of both metal and plastic. Because the two materials cannot be melted together, the entire razor must be tossed into the trash. Plastics used in food packaging might be labeled, "recyclable," but oils and food particles ruin the plastic which then cannot be melted down and used again. 

Different plastics have different chemical properties and cannot be combined and melted together. For example, if a Polyvinyl chloride bottle is melted in a vat of Polyethylene terephthalate bottles, the whole batch will be ruined, creating a whole lot of "unusable goop." Much of the plastic that can be recycled is downcycled into a worse material, becoming unrecyclable. Rather than saving this plastic from the landfill, the journey is just delayed. The use of "virgin" plastic is not reduced at all by this process. The environmental costs caused by creating these recycled plastic products could be worse than dumping the plastic in a landfill after its first "life."

"Debris being sorted inside a recycling plant in California." by Susie Shapira/FEMA (Public Domain).

"Debris being sorted inside a recycling plant in California." by Susie Shapira/FEMA (Public Domain).

Aluminum is a product that can be reused more than once so many, many people recycle their soda (or beer) cans. Unfortunately, the can you take to the recycling center likely won't ever be a soda can again. After soda cans are melted, the metal cannot be used to make soda cans again. Cans are actually made from two different types of metal. The bottom and the cylinder shape are aluminum, but the top has to be sturdier and is often made by mixing magnesium and aluminum. Once the sides and the top all melt together, the new product cannot be used for new tops nor new sides and bottoms of cans. The new metal is inferior and must be used to create some other type of product.

Recycling centers themselves could be causing more harm than good. The centers are stinky, filthy, and hardly buildings most people would want as a neighbor. They're also polluters. A study at Michigan State University found that a recycling center in East Lansing had polluted the soil, affecting the health of the surrounding ecosystem with significant negative results. Recycling Centers also contribute to noise pollution, which may not seem like a big deal,but sucks for individuals living, working, or hanging out near the center. In 2012, Houston authorities discovered that several local metal recycling centers were causing horrific air pollution. The smoke escaping these centers was releasing hexavalent chromium into the air. This chemical is extremely dangerous and if inhaled can cause lung cancer. These incidents may be isolated to one plant or one city, but the theme is the same. Recycling Centers have to use complex processes and dangerous chemicals to "recycle" materials.

"Worker in recycling facility " by M. Stone (Public Domain).

"Worker in recycling facility " by M. Stone (Public Domain).

The collection of recyclable goods is also anything but green. According to INFORM, there are more than 130,000 garbage trucks on the road, including 31,000 dedicated recycling trucks, many of them diesel. On average, these vehicles get less than 3 miles/gallon, using almost 9,000 gallons of fuel yearly. These trucks, even though they serve a good and noble purpose, have many negative consequences. Emissions cause air pollution, enveloping densely populated cities with smog. This stuff, besides hurting scenery, is dangerous. According the California Air Resources Board, there are 40 toxic constituents in diesel exhaust that can cause serious respiratory problems. Diesel trucks are also notoriously loud. Noise pollution affects people living in truck routes and can cause long-term damage to truck drivers. Cars overall are becoming more environmentally friendly, as producers focus on hybrids, electric vehicles (although, unfortunately there are some issues there too), and more, but the fact of the matter is, these trucks are on the road today and they're being problematic now. It is true, the majority of these vehicles are garbage collectors and not recycling, but removing recycling from the equation, will reduce the total damage these vehicles cause.

Essentially, what we need to do is create products that are designed to be disposed of. One such method is be "biomimicry." This is a movement looking to create products that mimic nature. For example, a dish whose biological and chemical composition is similar to that of shells could be safely thrown back into the ocean as soon as it has served its purpose. If designers and innovators create products with this idea of "cradle to cradle" use then we can do away with much of our current waste. 

Ultimately, all of us who either recycle or care deeply about caring for our home, want real solutions. We want practices that do good and we want practices that are sustainable. Let's do away with feel-good practices and focus on finding solutions that actually work.