We’re told from a young age that recycling is easy and a great way for us to help the planet, but unfortunately in reality it’s more complicated than it seems. Sometimes the way we recycle and the items we recycle can actually do more harm than good.
In this post we’ll cover two aspects of recycling that are important to understand so that we can all recycle better, reduce the waste we send to landfill, and overall have a more sustainable and responsible approach to waste.
What is Wish-Cycling?
Have you ever had a moment of panic in front of your garbage and recycling bins, unsure which one an item should go into? Most of us have faced this dilemma, and have opted for the recycling bin, because we think that it’s still better than assuming everything is garbage, even if it isn’t actually recyclable. This is a common problem that is resulting in major issues for recycling facilities across the globe.
This is wish-cycling – the hope that if we put something in the recycling rather than the garbage, that we are still doing the right thing, even if it isn’t supposed to go in there. Wish-cycling is a result of a lack of information and resources about the waste systems where we live, and in some cases, we’re just guessing after a hard day. However, it’s more than an annoyance at recycling facilities where materials are sorted – it can be extremely dangerous for workers, machines and our environment.
In my city, we have a few recycling options offered by our government:
- Bring designated recyclables to recycling depots comprised of blue bins and put items in individual bins (i.e. paper, cardboard, plastic bags, cans and bottles)
- Place recyclables into a blue bag that is picked up on garbage day
- Bring hazardous recyclable materials to facilities called Eco-Stations, where items are sorted by type and stored safely (i.e. lightbulbs, paint, batteries, chemicals, metal, electronics)
Contamination & Hazards
Each facility is designed to accept specific kinds of materials in specific conditions, and anything that doesn’t belong can contaminate everything it’s stored with. For example, cans are recyclable in our blue bags, and will be sorted by workers when they arrive at our municipal recycling facility. A wet can with chunks of soup in it is not only gross to deal with, it will likely get all of the other materials in the blue bag wet and contaminated, making everything in that bag instant garbage. Workers sorting these items are forced to stop and throw everything in that bag/batch away.
The recycling industry is just that, an industry. It relies on good quality materials that can be dealt with efficiently and sold to companies that will recycle those materials into new items. The industry simply doesn’t have the time, money or capacity to clean a dirty can of soup when there are thousands of pounds of materials coming in everyday.
Beyond contamination, there are real dangers of putting certain items into a recycling stream not built for them. Items like lightbulbs, batteries or chemicals can break or leak, which is very dangerous when workers are sorting items by hand, even if they are wearing gloves and PPE. Older electronics with stringy parts (cassette tapes, VHS’s, string lights) can cause jams in machinery that is not meant to deal with them, creating major facility shutdowns or potentially permanently breaking machines.
Learn what can Actually be Recycled
While it may seem obvious to some of us which items are recyclable and how to recycle properly, there are some things that aren’t so clear. For example, a paper coffee cup seems straightforward – if it’s paper, it should be recyclable. However, the majority of coffee cups are not recyclable because of their thin plastic liner. It’s not obvious that it’s lined with plastic when you look at it, and it unfortunately makes these cups incredibly difficult to recycle.
I have seen first hand that other items can be confusing; I once had a roommate who put eggshells in our blue bag and genuinely didn’t know that they were not recyclable. To this day I’m still not sure what he thought egg-shells would be turned into at a recycling facility. This is where staying informed, reading up-to-date changes about recycling in our communities and passing on information about recycling is crucial to making recycling sustainable and effective.
Every city, town, county and country has different recycling facilities, rules and systems. At this point, there is no ‘catch-all’ recycling system, and therefore it is imperative that we are familiar with the rules and facilities that apply to our specific community. Doing a quick search of your city/town name with the word ‘recycling’ will likely bring up the information you’re looking for. Many municipal websites offer printable guides, videos, and some even have apps where you can plug in the item you’re unsure about, and it will tell you exactly what to do with it. One issue I’ve noticed lately is generic posts on social media promoting recycling of certain items, without stating where they live and the caveat that users should double-check if their area also recycles that item. I love that social media is a tool to promote recycling, but we need to be mindful that unless we are only following folks who live in our city/town, the information they are sharing might not apply the same way to us.
Even if a certain item is not recycled in your area, there may still be options. TerraCycle has some awesome programs (varying by country), to send certain items back to them in a box to be properly recycled. Programs like TerraCycle are great for businesses, workplaces and households to take part in. Some stores also offer recycling for specific items that they sell or offer, such as plastic bag recycling.
The key is to see what is already available in your community, and if an item isn’t recycled by your government, to do a quick search online and see if another program exists that is accessible to you.
There is power in sharing information in an easily accessible way. This might be as simple as printing off a recycling guide from your city and posting it on a refrigerator or bulletin board. It might mean downloading an app for your parents or older relatives and showing them how it works, so that the information is at their fingertips. It’s great to share images and messages from social media curated by/for your city and town to spread the word digitally. One of the easiest things you can do at home is to make dedicated, labelled containers for sorting special recyclables. Coffee cans, boxes and ice cream pails are fantastic for sorting items like batteries, lightbulbs, and electronics, and make taking them to the recycling facility easy and fun, especially if you get your family involved.
Feeling comfortable with how to recycle effectively? That’s great, but, and there’s always a but – are you familiar with downcycling?
What is Downcycling?
Are all recyclable materials able to be recycled over and over again? Yes and no, it’s complicated. Realistically it depends on the material.
Aluminium (think soda and beer cans), steel and glass can be recycled over and over again – basically forever. While aluminum mining involves resource extraction which can have varying impacts on land and ecosystems, the good news is that by properly recycling it, we have a high quality material with an infinite lifespan – which in theory should reduce the amount of new aluminum produced in the future.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said for plastic and paper. These products are downcycled, meaning that a once ‘virgin’ product can only be recycled a certain number of times before it is unusable as a raw material, and it’s final form will not be recyclable. Plastic and paper is easily contaminated and begins to break down after being reprocessed multiple times. For example, plastic water bottles can only be recycled, at most, a couple of times before they are no longer usable as a recognizable ‘plastic’ type material. However, you likely have plastic water bottles ‘hidden’ throughout your home in the form of fibre. This could look like carpets, rugs, pillow cases, insulation, or fleece. Many clothing companies recycle water bottles into clothing, like Girlfriend Collective. It is definitely an inventive way to use recycled materials to make a new product, and it’s a great initiative that many companies are buying into now.
However, the truth about downcycling is it is not a circular loop – there is an end of life of any item material that is downcycled. Garment recycling is rare – my municipality, and the majority of my country does not have any textile recycling infrastructure, and it doesn’t seem like we’ll get it anytime soon. Have a torn up fleece jacket? Well, it’s most likely bound for landfill unless you have a creative way to use the scraps. Upcycling is one creative way of reusing textile waste, such as using old clothes and textiles for stuffing pillows, making dog beds or stuffed toys.
Considering the sheer quantity of plastic used and produced globally, it would be idealistic to assume that every piece of plastic will be downcycled and that every downcycled item will be used until it’s end of life, and then reused as something else. Inevitably, most of it will be going to landfill at some point, or processed through other waste systems like bio-fuel. So while it’s great to purchase items that are products of downcycling, rather than an item made of virgin plastic or paper, keep in mind that the item will also have a finite end of its usable life.
Remember to reduce, reuse and then recycle in that order.
The more we focus on reducing our waste in general and taking the time to fix, or upcycle items we already own, the less we will have to send to landfill and recycling centres. And if you choose to use a recycled product that is bound for downcycling, consider finding a way to upcycle it once it’s reached its end of usable life.