When looking at what happens once you put a product in the recycle bin, the road seems quite dire. First (and in my opinion worst) of all, it’s an admission that the thing you’re throwing away is useless to you from that day on. You don’t want it near you; you don’t even want it in your house. You just want it gone. Its expiry date of use to its owner has come to pass.
The next step it’s being thrown, with the rest of the to-be-recycled material, into a collection bin, or placed in front of your door, or somewhere where the magical garbage trucks will take it away to be recycled to produce value for money for the recycler. In case the waste stream is contaminated, for example if there’s coca cola can in a paper bin that could blemish it, less money can be made off the recycled outcome. But either way it will be down-cycled with the similar materials in the recycling stream, then it will be bleached and have other chemicals added to it, and be sold to someone who is willing to buy it. Let’s assume this is a book publisher who will use this amalgamated paper to create books for you. The chemicals aren’t good for you to breathe in or touch, as the paper was never made to be recycled. Recycling is not good because it’s a worst case scenario for materials. They are being remade into a worse quality than what they were before, they’re being added new material that are often harmful for the users. Also, more energy is being used so as to create what is essentially a worse product than the original one. It creates a new products that can be useful and extends the life-cycle of the material as a whole, but it still has its imminent death close-by.
The fact is you can only recycle products a finite number of times, especially when they aren’t designed to be recycled. Adding to that, many times the streams of recycling aren’t clean, meaning they are contaminated with elements of another material, or irreparably blemished, such as coffee stained white paper. This problem is where the popular saying ‘one person cannot make a difference in recycling’ is proven to be false, in my opinion, since so many people recycle, one person doing it in the wrong way devalues the possible product that was to come out of the recycled material. This is because the result product is downgraded even more and the recycling facility makes less money off of it, needing to spend more time separating it as well. This isn’t something people should be striving to do; it is not a good solution. Having said that, it is the best solution currently available.
In the world that we live in recycling has the necessary infrastructure in place to be conducted at a large level and it is better than the alternatives that are equally widespread: incineration and landfilling. And this is where one of the sentences I most dislike comes into play, because ‘the system is broken’. It’s all that we know, all that we have been used to for our whole life, but it’s outdated, outplayed and not adequate for the situation we currently live in.
Recycling being a laudable action thus is a symptom. It will always be a part of the system, but it’s the perception of it by the general people that makes a difference here. As such, the day that recycling is seen as the worst case scenario, in front only of the unthinkable, is the day that we have the right system in place. But until that day comes, recycling is the best thing available for wasting materials, and it should be encouraged as much as it ever has been. That is the point of this article, to understand what we have in front of us while understanding that we need to do better. Much better.
As a final thought, there is one more important point. There are rumours one hears about recycling being bad for many different reasons, such as that it doesn’t make a difference, that the products you recycle don’t actually get recycled at the end of the line, that when it’s a little dirty it’s just bunched away into landfill anyway or even that it uses more energy than it’s worth, etc.
Those myths are not true, as devaluing isn’t the same as landfilling.
When a recycling facility encounters such problems they prefer to get lower values for their recycled material than having to pay to get it disposed of. In the end they’re still getting money in the first scenario. More importantly for this article though, a practice not being good is not the same as it being bad. In an analogue to a quote I’ve used before from Michael Braungard “I [am] tired of working hard to be less bad. I [want] to be involved in making buildings, even products, with completely positive intentions.” Recycling is a practice of the less bad, it’s not completely positive, but it’s better than the other options.
Benjamin Tirone Nunes