Recycling is Not Good

Photo Credits: The Atlantic

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


5 thoughts on “Recycling is Not Good

  1. The thing is that, its not that I would have a problem with the information that the author has provided, but rather the fact of the incompleteness, if I may. The article starts and goes through out it, quite extensively, demonizing the process of recycling and that it is fruitless and inefficient, and the conclusion is a paragraph on ‘ Hey recycling is the worst thing ever, but we have no other thing’, in one paragraph.

    I mean there could have been a bit of more of an insight on how does recycling help on some certain aspects, because I am sure there must be at least ONE good thing about it, because we are slowly putting it in our legal systems, so there must be something good in the process, due to the fact that it would be economically inefficient.

    1. Hi Salim, thank you for your reply.
      Firstly, if you read what I wrote properly, I never demonise recycling, I never say that recycling is a bad thing, I merely am trying to show the part of recycling that people don’t normally see, people either hear the myths, reference and debunk at the end, or hear the good parts. The reasons why recycling isn’t the best thing in the world is usually ignored. And if you go through my whole article I guide you through the rational, it’s not good, but it’s better than everything else that’s available. I don’t say it’s the worst thing ever, because it isn’t.

      The good thing about it, which I also indicate, is that it keeps materials and products away from landfill and incineration. But that is one step away from something bad, not what will help our society improve in a time when resources are more expensive than ever.

      The information I provide is incomplete in one way, which is that I don’t talk about what IS good if recycling is not. Recycling, in the world that we live in, is downcycling, it depreciates and wastes products. That is not an actually good system, it is better than wasting, but it’s worse than many other things we could do. To have an idea what I’m talking about, please read this article I wrote for The Global Oyster a few weeks back.


  2. Benjamin, this article is irresponsible at best, and dangerous at worst. You make several – vast – claims about the process of recycling without referring to any scientific evidence in support of your assertions relating to the ‘downgrading’ of materials, use of energy, etc. While you may have been trying to be provocative, it is not recycling that is the problem, but the global economic system which encourages our increasing consumption, externalises environmental damage and tolerates poor standards of living for much of the world’s population.

    You could have used this platform to educate your readership by engaging with the scientific community’s discussions on this difficult question, rather than setting up a ‘strawman’ argument. I’d stay away from topics involving hard science in the future.

    1. You’re right, I’m not going to make the mistake again of not referencing my articles when they are about hard science. I didn’t have too much time to work on this one and as such it came out on the basis of research I’ve done in the past. As such, it might have seemed like claims without basis.

      But alas, I am not a reputable journalist at this point, so as “irresponsible” as it might have been to to write this, reading my article and taking it all for face value or attacking it all without doing further research are just as irresponsible.

      Also, reading my article to the end should take the reader to think about what I wrote, where the conclusion is not at all “don’t recycle”, it’s “be aware of what recycling is”.

      Yes, our economic system is the problem, but not based solely on the need to increase consumption. More than that it’s because we’re unable to decouple it from resources, meaning at this point, how it’s set up, you need to buy raw materials to transform and sell. Consumption in itself isn’t the problem because if the products were designed properly, passed through re-use, refurbishment and remanufacturing stages before being recycled, the continuing consumption wouldn’t be needing more material exploitation (refer back to the Circular economy article I wrote ).

      1. An excellent reply, although I may personally disagree with the last paragraph.

        I would urge the author to take the criticism (as he seems to have) proactively and engage in further referencing in future articles. I also would encourage Catherine, if she feels some claims to be inaccurate and “vast”, to ask for specific referencing as to which of these claims she is referring to as well as being more receptive to the ultimate message of the article and to challenge her preconceived notions. I am quite certain that should he be asked for specific references, or at least hopeful, the author may provide them.

        One more point of hopefully constructive criticism I would like to levy onto the author, and have done so privately, is to engage not only in raw criticism of the existing system, but also to provide an opinionated and informed answer to what the solutions may be, even if simply in the form of a “further reading” to his previous article at the bottom of the page.

        Lastly, as a writer for numerous outlets myself I feel the need to make one last comment. Very often my own articles are very well referenced. However, once passing editorial scrutiny, many of the references are often removed. Perhaps it’s because the editorial staff believes that seeing every second word to be hyperlinked is distracting to the reader, or because they rely on the reader to do some independent research to deepen their knowledge of the subject. Whatever the reason, whenever reading an article, please realize that it always must go through an editorial process – mostly for the best, but sometimes with disadvantages. So, please, don’t assume that the author has not done his/her research, but please also always feel compelled to challenge the author and ask for specific references if you feel such course to be appropriate.

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