I talk a lot about reduction. Reducing the number of toys you have, the quantity of cleaning supplies you buy, even the amount of meat you eat. My constant focus on reduction over recycling, upcycling or disposing of waste responsibly is a deliberate one. Put simply, recycling isn’t enough.
Recycling is good, and I’m not here to contradict that. When the options are to either toss a plastic bottle into the recycling bin or into the trash can, you’ll see me shaking my pom-poms for the blue bin. But I’m afraid the black-and-white thinking ends there. Recycling is a complicated business, and not always a pleasant one to boot.
First of all, recycling doesn’t wipe the slate clean. It requires an enormous expenditure of energy and resources, including the monitoring of collection sites, the transportation of recyclables, and the recycling manufacturing process itself.
Plastic, my nemesis, is especially problematic in that it can rarely be used for primary reprocessing – the process of breaking down a product and manufacturing it back into that same product. Plastic’s sensitivity to heat and light mean that its long, flexible molecules (the same ones that give it its unique malleability) degrade and break down when exposed to repeated thermal and mechanical processing. In plain terms, plastic has a sort of “heat history”, degrading more and more each time it’s processed. This process is irreversible. For this reason, plastic is typically used for secondary reprocessing, which takes recovered plastic and uses it to create items which are not typically recyclable themselves: bumper stickers, textiles, and plastic lumber.
These uses are certainly preferable to its not being reused at all, but it’s important to understand that recycling a plastic bottle doesn’t mean closing the loop. That bottle will not embark on some celestial journey, reincarnated a thousand times. Recycling absolutely has a waste footprint, and it’s not an insignificant one.