I’m Green… But I Don’t Like Recycling

I’m Green… But I Don’t Like Recycling

Before my plastic-free “awakening” I used to religiously recycle everything I could. I’d save all my plastic bottles and traipse across my home city once a month to take them to the only recycling point. I recycled Tetra-Paks back when the only option was to post them back to the supplier. I also saved used stamps and posted those off for recycling too. If something didn’t say it was recyclable, I’d hope for the best and toss it in the recycling bin anyway.

Now I’m so much more environmentally aware…and recycling no longer fills me with joy. In fact, it’s something I actively try to avoid. Thinking that doesn’t make any sense? Read on!

Recycling Lulls us into a False Sense of Security

My main frustration with recycling is that it gives the impression that we are being a responsible consumer and that, by recycling, we’ve done our bit. Of course recycling is far more responsible than sending a whole heap of stuff to landfill, but being a responsible consumer begins long before we throw our trash out.

The main issue is that recycling doesn’t address the issue of over-consumption. It sends the message that you can consume what you want so long as you recycle afterwards. Recycling still takes huge amounts of energy. It involves collection of waste from your doorstep and delivery to a depot, sorting, cleaning, processing and re-molding, followed by shipping to the next part of the chain, and plenty of this recycling waste could be avoided completely by shopping a little differently.

An enormous bin crammed full of recyclables is nothing to feel “green” about.

Recycling is a Business and Operates for Profit

It’s nice to think of recycling as a service that exists solely for the good of the planet, but actually most recycling centres are run as businesses and rely on markets, just like other businesses do. That means if a waste line is of value, it will be recycled, and if it is not of value, it won’t be. This changes according to global prices, demand and labour fees.

For example, to get a clean line of glass to make new glass you need hand pickers who will select glass bottles and leave bits of terracotta, old lightbulbs etc. A machine would sort this as glass and would contaminate the batch. But if the value of glass is low, and the cost of hand pickers is too high, the option might to to crush to make road base or even to landfill.

[This was my big revelation. When I visited a recycling centre (technical name: Materials Recovery Facility or MRF) in Perth in 2012, I was told that the only glass processing facility was in the next State – and this is still true in 2015. To drive a truck there with a load of glass that might be rejected for contaminants was an expensive risk, and the price of glass was too low to employ hand pickers to ensure there was no contamination, so this MRF chose to send all its recyclable glass to landfill.]

Recycling doesn’t always mean Recycled

Knowing whether something is recyclable or not is actually straightforward. One reason is that just because something can theoretically be recycled, it doesn’t mean that it will be, and every council has different rules about what it will accept.

For example, the bioplastic PLA is recyclable, but it is hard to sort without specific technology and most recycling plants don’t have this, so it is not recycled. In fact, the difference in recyclability of all plastic varies wildly from council to council, and country to country. Even moving suburb can mean a whole new set of rules apply! (You can usually find the details of what your council will and won’t accept on its local website.)

Even if you check your council listings meticulously, there is still a chance that your recyclables won’t be recycled. One reason is how they’ve been sent to the MRF. If you’ve bagged your recycling neatly, chances are it won’t be unbagged at the other end but sent to landfill instead. Ditto if you’ve left any liquid in bottles, or left the lids on.

But let’s assume you’ve done everything exactly as you are supposed to. Great…but what if your neighbour hasn’t? Or the guy at the end of your road? People chuck all kinds of things into recycling, and it can contaminate the whole truck and mean the whole consignment gets landfilled. Car batteries, duvets and pillows, even loose shredded paper can contaminate whole loads.

Recycling MRF Perth WA
Recycling isn’t pretty…and when everyone’s waste gets mixed together in a huge truck, chances are there will be some contamination : /

It’s not necessarily that people are deliberately doing the wrong thing, either. Recycling can be confusing! I can confess to putting light bulbs into recycling because hey, they’re glass! I didn’t know any different! Now I know, yes they are glass, but it’s heat resistant glass that melts at a different temperature to regular glass like wine bottles, and isn’t going to do the recycling process any favours!

If not Recycling, then What?!

I want to be clear that I still recycle. Of course I recycle! However my goal is to recycle as little as possible. We have a wastepaper bin which we use as a recycling bin, and we fill it every couple of weeks. We have paper (often mail), paper receipts, the community newspaper and beer bottles.

We don’t buy plastic so we never have any to recycle, although we do accumulate small amount of soft plastic over time, and I usually take a small ball to the soft plastic recycling point about once every six months.

Recycling bin
This bin (loosely packed) get’s filled every one / two weeks with recyclables… less if my husband decides not to buy any beer!
plastic waste
This photo was taken in September 2014, and was the third stash of plastic we collected since January that year. Soft plastics can be downcycled, but I’d rather eliminate them altogether!

Instead of recycling, I try to bring as little waste as possible through the door. Bringing my own produce bags, cloth bags for bread and reusable shopping bags to the shops, buying in bulk, cancelling junk mail and buying second-hand items rather than new has seriously cut down the amount of packaging we throw away.

Everyone knows the manta “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”, but we tend to focus on the last one – “Recycle” – when it’s far more environmentally responsible to focus on the first one – “Reduce”. Or add another in front – Refuse!

Recycling is a great place to start in the journey to be more environmentally friendly, but it’s a terrible place to stop. After all, we can’t recycle our way to a more sustainable planet! We need to be just as responsible about what’s entering our house as we are with disposing of it afterwards!

Now I’d love to hear from you! Tell me – do you have a love-hate relationship with recycling? Are there any frustrations you’d like to share? Or do you embrace it with open arms?! Has your opinion changed as you’ve gone on your sustainability journey? Have you ever been to a recycling plant and what surprised you about what you saw? Do you have anything else to add? Whether you agree or disagree I’d really like to know our thoughts, so please leave a comment below!

59 Responses to I’m Green… But I Don’t Like Recycling

    • Haha, maybe! It took me so long to realise that recycling didn’t equal green though, and it still feels like a “but” rather than an “and” – but you’re right of course : )

  1. Well all your paper could be buried in your garden so you do not need to take it any where or in your compost bin if you are a Gardner your clear plastic could go on home made cards if you wanted to the whole idea is to just see what you can do and put as little in the bins which the council give you to pot it in have a blessed day

    • Hi Linda, thanks so much for your comment! I live in a flat but we do feed paper and card to the worm farm – we only recycle it if there is too much for them to eat / sleep on! I try to put as little in the bin as I can : )

      • Is recycled paper not actually better than newly produced paper? Just wondering how keeping paper out of the recycling bin helps. I use paper for our compost too in order to have enough ‘brown stuff’ but didn’t think it would be good to not recycle it

        • I don’t know the figures but I’d guess there is far more paper being recycled than there is demand for recycled paper! Recycled paper isn’t such good quality as new paper (newspapers being an obvious example) so there will always be demand for new stuff. I’d always choose recycled paper, but most paper isn’t 100% recycled content. Better to use as little paper as possible and reuse what you can (eg writing on the back on envelopes). Also, because of the way recycling is sorted I think the recovery rate isn’t 100%, particularly small bits like receipts. Have you ever been to a MRF? I think you’d find it eye-opening!

          • No, I haven’t but plan to do that. Will be eye opening and for sure change how I handle waste. Thanks for the answer and the very informative article.

              • Nothing breaks down in landfill : ( They are sealed once the waste is added because you can’t have aerobic digestion taking place. It’s like a tomb for waste to be preserved forever. There are tales of people excavating old landfill sites and finding intact hotdogs and yes, newspapers! Composting or recycling is much better!

  2. One thing that (of many things) irks me is how do I know the difference between cellulose produces and plastics produce. Cellulose is decompostable. It would be really nice if more people could package this that “must” be packaged in cello. Do you know of any place that is doing that?

    • I was wondering exactly that yesterday, actually! I generally avoid all packaging that looks plastic just to be safe, but I received something recently in the post that was packaged in cellulose (I was told beforehand)… Honestly, if I hadn’t been told I’d have thought it was plastic! I’m going to feed it to my worm farm and see what they think of it. If they don’t like it, then it’s not that different from plastic, is it?!

      I don’t really know a lot about cellulose packaging – I think i need to write a blog post about it!

  3. So often when I talk to people about their rubbish they proudly puff out their chest and tell me that their rubbish bin has very little in it but their recycling bin is full. I very gently point out that these still need to be transported, sorted, transported again (many times overseas) and reprocessed to quite often be down-cycled.

    I think everyone should contact their council about taking a tour of their landfill or MRF (if available). It is such an eye opener.

    • Haha, I can totally relate to that! But I’m sure that if you’d asked me 5 years ago about my rubbish, I’d have done the same thing! “Look how much plastic I’m taking to be recycled!” [Shudders at the memory!]

      I really do too. I went as a kid in Primary School but I was way too young to really understand, and then again in my thirties – that education would have been useful in the twenty or so intervening years!!!

      • I really agree with this – the amount of times that someone has explained their environmentally-conscious credentials to me by saying that their recycling bin is full at the end of every week, I think I’ve lost count! I think it’s an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ thing – as if there’s a magic portal from the recycling bin back to the supermarket shelves. And I was definitely guilty of this myself once upon a time.

        Even if everything was actually recycled, it would still be a very imperfect system – the petrol in the recycling trucks and the coal/gas power running the factories is most definitely not recyclable!

        Love the blog BTW :)

        • Hi Pip, thanks so much for your comment! It’s great to meet so many kindred spirits in the comments ; )

          I couldn’t agree more – even if the recycling of items part was perfect, the rest of the system has a lot to answer for!

          Thank you!

  4. I worked for a local recycling service for 4 years, so I know about the problems, and we often had to explain to people WHY we rejected some stuff (we hand sorted at the kerbside). Most people just assume all plastic or glass is the same, and if they hear of stuff going to landfill anyway, they assume it’s a scam of some sort on the part of the council.

    I quite agree, we should concentrate on reducing! Evn after 4 years, i was astonished by the sheer quantity of stuff some households get through each week.

    • I wish EVERYONE could (or would!) visit a recycling depot – there’s a few truths there that people need to know! Like the fact that recycling is waste, it’s stinky… also the sheer quantities that are processed, the fact that it’s not a charity – oh, so many things. I was outraged when I found out that glass wasn’t recycled near me, but the guy who explained it was very matter of fact – recycling is a business, and he was a business manager, and it wasn’t profitable. Very clear. Most people in Perth don’t realise glass isn’t recycled – it’s not something that the government would want to share – but it’s not like starting a petition is going to help! That was my big wake-up call – I need to reduce my own waste. Take some responsibility. Sending it for recycling is like asking someone else to deal with your problem – it may work out the way you want but it might not, either!

  5. This is so great that you brought this up. I agree that recycling is still not that environmentally friendly. One of our biggest wastes is from food and drink packaging. For this reason, I’m trying to give up non-essential drink items like coffee sold prepackaged and alcohol and soda that come in one time use bottles. Also, processed food is a big offender. However, when you eat, whole, one ingredient foods, it is easy to buy produce and bulk foods like nuts, seeds, legumes and grains with your own reusable bags or containers. You can also go to the meat, deli and cheese department and ask to put the food into your own containers instead of their wrapping. Plus, giving these processed and non-essential foods and drinks up will only help my health… and my wallet!

    • Love love love everything you said! I only wish I’d realised this 15 years ago! And you so right about the saving money part – I thought because all that processed stuff was always on “Special” that I was being savvy and saving money – oh the irony! Most of that stuff is snack food, empty calories with zero satisfaction… I found that when I ditched it and ate more wholefoods I didn’t need that stuff, and my food bill is cheaper yet my diet is healthier. I still eat cake – I just make my own ; )

  6. agreed – it’s about reduction first and foremost. I don’t buy TetraPak anymore after reading how ridiculously energy intensive the process is. I focus on glass as it’s the easiest for manufacturers to recycle right back into the same thing, as compared to plastic downcycling.

    • I also stopped buying TetraPak stuff after going to the Less is More festival and listening to a talk by one of the Eco Faeries. I had no idea how difficult they are to recycle… and therefore don’t get recycled in wa. It’s hard with kids but i am trying to reduce plastic purchasing bit by bit! Thanks for your blog Lindsay

    • I also think Tetra Pak do a great job of persuading the public that their products are environmentally-friendly. I’m always distrusting of companies that clearly have a large budget to spruik their green credentials!

  7. Hi, love the article but how do you stop junk mail? I’ve tried and now I think I get more!!!
    Thanks,
    Ellice

    • I hate the amount of junk that comes through the door. Aside from signing up for anti junk mail services (which is only partially effective I’ve found), if there is any way of returning to sender, via any address available on the leaflet, I always do that. I usually write a little note asking that nothing non-essential is sent to the address as well. So far, it seems to be working!

    • Hi Ellice, thanks! I see that Daffodilpip has already replied to your question below so I’ll just add what I do. I have a “No junk mail” sticker on my letter box, I’ve unsubscribed from as much as I can (and am vigilant to untick any sign up boxes when filling in forms), I always cross through the address and write “Return to Sender” on anything junk related. It’s not perfect but it’s much better than my neighbour’s boxes!

    • I know exactly what you mean! It’s almost as if it’s a celebration to go and buy more stuff so long as we can recycle it at the end! I want to jump up and own and shout “I think you’re missing the point!” Of course it’s not all like that at all, and there’s lots of great stuff going on, but some of the posts I’ve seen on Twitter have made me shudder!

  8. Thankyou for this post – I have spent the last five years ago upsetting everyone around be singing my “3Rs” song… Let’s not Reduce, Recycle and Reuse, we all should just Reduce Reduce Reduce” (I guess it is a little repetitive after the 2nd hour).

  9. Thank you for the great explanation. I learned this at an Earth carer course too, but you have put it into words, and I will share it – as its such a grey area where people really don’t understand well enough. Marea

  10. I have gotten better at reducing the plastic (and other trash), as I bring my own bags to the store. But there are times I find it hard to reduce as much as I would like as most things in the stores are covered in some sort of plastic, regardless of what food it is.

    I have yet to find a single store that will let you use your own containers for dry wares, which makes it harder… but at least reducing is a focus, which helps a little :-)

    • Hi Anne, whereabouts do you live? That must be frustrating – I’m lucky that I was so many zero-waste / bulk options close to me. But don’t despair! Reducing is a great focus, and the best place to start. I didn’t make any changes overnight! Just keep at it : )

      • I live on the west coast of Norway. and even if I live in one of the “bigger” city’s of Norway.. we are still a small city compared to other places in the world. which is why we have not implemented zero waste/bulk options in stores here (not even in specialities stores)… but maybe one day.. I still bring my own bags, and I was thinking next time I go to the butcher to see if there is any way he will put the products in the bags/boxes I bring.. slowly.. one step at a time.. I’m sure we might get it in this country as well ;-)

  11. I think you know how I feel about recycling. On the one hand if it can be done without too much of an environmental burden then I’m all for it because that eliminates the need for my waste to go to the landfill. But,there’s always a but. I get so frustrated with recycling because I know after I’ve washed, removed labels and lids, checked that the item can be recycled, etc. I know that once it leaves it might be routed right back to the landfill.

    At the same time I know that if we want more of our items to actually be recycled then we need to actually shop and buy items made from recycled materials. For me that means that I’m only participating in one half of the equation. Even the one item that I do purchase from recycled material, when needed, is toilet paper yet I do not put paper out to be recycled.

    • Hi Lois, thank you for your comment! Yes, I do know how you feel about recycling ; ) I particularly enjoyed your second paragraph because it’s something Ive been thinking about a lot recently regarding charity shops. We feel good about donating all our old stuff to charity shops and second hand stores, but if we then just go and buy brand new stuff from the regular shops to replace the old stuff, it’s still a linear system and not really solving anything, is it?

  12. This is a brilliant post! So many people think that recycling is a cure-all and that their conscious is clear once they toss something into that bin. But recycling should be our absolute last resort – we should do everything we can to avoid it, because much of what we throw away isn’t recyclable, and the majority of what is can never be upcycled, only downcycled.

    This is the first time I’ve visited your site so I haven’t checked the rest of it out, but I presume you’ve read “Plastic Free” by Beth Terry?

    • Hi Karyn, thank you so much! And your comment about recycling… yes yes agree agree : )

      Yes I have read Beth Terry’s book, but interestingly only after I’d been plastic-free for years! I’m not much of a reader – I love reading but it engulfs me (!) so in the interest of getting stuff done I just don’t get to read as much as I’d like.

      Nice to meet you : )

  13. I feel guilty about still getting the newspaper on the weekends (digital on weekdays) and know I have to go to full digital, and I so relate to your comment about getting engulfed by reading. I gave up the Sunday NY Times partly because it was a lot of extra paper and partly because I spent all week reading it. Still, there are some uses for newspaper, and for nostalgic reasons, I’ll miss it.
    Thanks for the education on recycling centers, I’d been thinking of visiting one.

    • Haha, I can relate to that! It takes me all week to read the paper too ; ) We don’t buy it, my husband reads the free community paper. Today we went to a cafe to read the Sunday paper – it’s great because I read all the bits I’m interested in and can leave it there for someone else to read again and again : )

      Ooooh you should go Sandy, I think you’d find it very interesting!

  14. It’s like you have read my thoughts without me evening knowing I had them!! I have been feeling uneasy about recycling for a while (I am actually in the middle of writing a post about it in reference to cleaning products) but I never really understood WHY. I just thought “this is wrong” but didn’t know why I thought that, so thank you so much for this post. Also, the thought of a neighbour or someone else living in my neighbourhood ruining our whole lot of recyclables really upsets me, people are trying and others can’t even bothered about it. I got so upset about people in my unit block doing it, I went to the local council and got “how to use the waste system” cards to give everyone. I hope it helped a bit…

    • Haha, that made me smile! Well the first bit, not the bit about your neighbours contaminating the recycling. I love that you went to the effort of getting the waste cards – that’s so great! I contemplated buying a whole heap of “no junk mail” stickers for the other flats in our block (there’s 16 in total) or putting notes in the boxes asking if anyone would like one and I’ll buy one for them!!! I never got round to it – but maybe I should! Thanks for the renewed inspiration! : )

      • Tours of my nearest depot book out months in advance! Would love to see the process. Hard to believe there’s such a demand – maybe it’s school groups.

  15. Can anyone suggest how to address the problem of recycling being collected and put in the recycling bins in plastic bags? Our flats have 24 tenants. About a quarter use plastic bags! I love discussions here; we are all on the same wavelength.

  16. Interesting read here. I’m still going to recycle though because its better than the alternative. There are many benefits of recycling and sometimes you can even be paid for it if you are otherwise going to be throwing out big metal materials. There is also much else we could do to conserve our precious planet other than recycling too, just look at more articles about being green consciences. Thanks for the article it was a fun read!

    • Thanks Zach! I wouldn’t discourage anyone from recycling so I’m pleased to hear it – I just think there are a lot of misunderstandings and inflated ideas about it! Choosing products that last well, made of parts that can be re-used (or recycled properly) is a great start! I guess this was more focussed on domestic waste rather than industrial waste, which should definitely be recycled if not re-used!

  17. Thank you for all of your insight about recycling. I definitely agree that it’s the first place to start to be more environmentally friendly. Overall, I feel like once you start recycling, you become more conscious and aware of the things that you are disposing of, and you will be less likely to use environmentally harmful things. Thank you for sharing!

  18. You have a good point, too. I like to recycle and reuse my waste, but I also agree that this doesn’t solve the problem of the over-consumption. You are also right that recycling is a business and also that there is no guarantee that your trash will be recycled. I really like the ideology of Zero waste movement and I think that this is the most sustainable way of living and solve the issue with producing waste that goes eventually to the landfills. Thanks for sharing this! :)

  19. I feel much like you, I don’t like to recycle that much. I like your techniques of not buying harmful substances that could damage the environment. I’m going to follow your lead and not buy plastic. That’s something simple that I can work on with my family. Thanks for the tips!

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