Oh yes, this black takeaway container is recyclable. But because our sorting machine’s optic eye cannot recognize it, you have to put it into the trash bin. How about the seethrough lid? Well, that is too bright for the optic eye. Just great. It’s a bummer that almost all the restaurants in this area use these containers then. Isn’t it? Here we go. Food and beverage cartons, yogurt containers… trash. Medicine bottles, to trashbin. Do we have a problem here?
Plastic items and packages have codes – that number in the triangle with an arrow – that tell us if the piece is recyclable or not. If it was only that easy. Regulations, rules, and recycling possibilities vary based on where you live. And even if your city, state, or country was progressive, what comes to waste collection and sorting, that is not a guarantee that recyclables end up getting recycled.
Collecting does not equal recycling, and it can be messed up in so many ways. Do people know what they can put into collection bins? Maybe the guidance is not clear enough, or the citizen does not have enough patience to learn how to do it correctly? Sometimes we put recyclables in the trash bin because we were not sure where they belong. Additionally, a wrong item in the recycling bin can destroy the whole batch.
Sometimes sorting of the recyclables happens by manpower, sometimes by machines. Such as this optic eye I mentioned earlier. They both make mistakes, and there are huge differences in quality. In some countries, “recycling” skips the whole collection part, and the sorting happens in the landfills by human power…
Recyclable does not mean reusable. And recycling is not a process where the piece of plastic is melted and reformed again. It requires energy, chemicals, and additional oil-based materials.
And then there is my pet peeve – exporting recyclable material. Several countries, Germany and the USA as examples, do send their plastic recyclables to other countries. The exported amount of plastic is marked as recycled, even though the exporting countries do not track it. Will the plastic be really recycled, or does it end up being burned? Maybe it goes to landfills or to the ocean. The countries that receive this generous amount of recyclables do not necessarily have the resources to store or handle them. Out of sight out, of mind, and the sending country gets the numbers to look nice for themselves.
And what is all this shipping back and forth? First, we ship the products from a country to another, and after the use, we send them forward as waste or recyclable. It is a horrible waste of energy and increases pollution. Also, there is always the risk of accidents, which result in the cargo – plastic – ending up in the ocean.
What can we do to make it better?
Is there anything we can do to make this recycling process a bit more flawless? It all begins from the conscious consuming, preferable minimalism. The world is suffering from overconsumption of everything. So before we have to try to figure out how to recycle our item or worry, where it will actually end up, we can do a lot:
- Ask yourself, do I need this? Maybe I could borrow it from someone or somewhere?
- Is there an alternative? A food that has been packed in paper wrapping instead of plastic or not packed at all? A toy that has not been made of plastic? What kind of cover this book has? For most products, there is a more sustainable alternative. Personally, I find food being the most challenging one what comes to packaging.
- If it gets broken, could it be fixed? This goes with the appreciation of things and what we have. If it is an annoying tiny piece of a cheap plastic toy, it is probably not worth fixing. But it should be a lesson learned – maybe we should not buy such toys. I have learned a lot about this problem. My daughter loves those tiny little…thingies.
- If you are not a creative person in such a way that you could modify any item to become something else – I am not – maybe you know someone who does that?
- If you end up tossing the item or product away, make sure you know if it, or at least parts of it, could be recycled. Regardless of the weird recycling guidance in my city, we have a pretty impressive resource recovery center that takes the most annoying things and reuses or recycles them. The problem is that people who do not have a car cannot necessarily get there.
By working hard with parts 1 and 2, there is no need to worry about the 3-5.
Was the headline too negative? Maybe, I admit. Recycling is a great thing to do, but it has so many negative side phenomena. The whole process easily creates confusion, pollutes, and wastes energy. The way recycling is done at the moment increases inequality in the world. Lately, it has even been used as a political tool to get benefits from other countries*. By being aware of this situation and being conscious about our consumption habits, we can do more good than just by recycling.