10 Ways You’re Getting Recycling Wrong

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Recycling is a key item on the checklist of anyone looking to boost his or her “green” credentials. The trouble is, whether you’re casually segregating glass from rubbish, or actively trying to support your local initiative by militantly hoarding plastic and shaming anyone who isn’t worried about landfill capacity, you’re probably getting recycling wrong. But don’t worry—recycling is still a great way to assuage the guilty consumer in you; however, if you’d like to know why you haven’t been saving the planet this whole time, check out these top reasons you’ve bungled the whole recycling thing.

10. You Aren’t Picturing Recycling Correctly

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This is a problem with industrial recycling—repurposing your spent coffee grounds as a fertilizer is admirable, but it is not part of an industrial process of reusing manufactured materials. Industrial-scale recycling certainly has a larger footprint than your backyard compost pile, but it is also not really the footprint people prefer to associate with it. Fact is, recycling centers, by virtue of processing various hazardous materials and waste products, emit significant quantities of pollution. As the saying goes: garbage in, garbage out.

Adding in the emissions from the fleet of vehicles required by the 9,000-odd curbside recycling programs scattered across the country, and it gets harder to definitively pronounce that the reclaimed waste is making a net reduction to America’s carbon footprint. In effect, recycled products are a lot like highly processed snack foods: they take bits and pieces that would normally get tossed, and manipulate them with the finest chemical treatments and machinery available, until they come out the other end, ready for consumers.

9. You Aren’t Recycling, You’re Downcycling

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In theory, recycling entails a sustainable circuit of use and reuse. In reality, our current system is more like a prolonged conveyor belt headed to oblivion. Instead of breaking down recyclable goods into raw materials ready to repeat the journey to consumers’ homes, the downcycling process involves a significant quality loss, and compromises the integrity of all the materials it touches. While it may make a small dent in global demand for raw resources, it is far from the infinite loop implied by the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle slogan. And the quality loss that accompanies the downcycling process means that the products lose much of their appeal—except to the Granola crowd that delights in buying anything that claims to be made of X-percent recycled material.

With true recycling, the consistent quality and process efficiency would diminish the demand for raw materials, creating a closed-loop system. Instead, our recycled goods are marginalized from the mainstream economy, and consumers continue to draw more raw resources into the system, only to cut them off from further exploitation by sending them to a landfill. In fact, downsizing ensures that even recycled goods are destined for the dump…

8. Ultimately, Your Plastic Isn’t Recycled

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Unlike glass, aluminum (and other metals), plastic cannot be recycled infinitely. Although well-meaning citizens sign up to see their plastic products featured in a blockbuster sequel, it is a doomed venture. Much like the endless stream of reboots, remakes, and regurgitated scrap that Hollywood callously dresses up in new packaging year after year, recycled plastic is of low-quality, and severely limited applications. It may be stretched out to make a handful of “new” items, but it will ultimately lose all integrity and end up in a landfill along with all the other nondescript garbage.

And anyway, despite comprising roughly 12% of all municipal waste, only around 8% of all plastic products get recycled. So while tossing your milk jugs and Zip-Locks in the recycling bin might assuage your conscience, your efforts would go a lot further if you would simply stop buying so much plastic in the first place.

7. You’re Demanding a Money-Losing Service

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Recycling programs are strapped for cash. Just as consumers who favor recycled products are far from the majority, corporate demand for recycled materials is low. The quality-losses involved in the process are partly to blame, but without better economics, it is hard for recycling plants to update and upgrade. This creates a whole other cycle, and it ends with a net loss for many of the cities and companies involved. And by participating, you may be part of the problem. In fact, there are hard production limits on most of these centers, because the demand for the resulting materials is so low, it becomes wasteful to keep recycling.

Municipal programs often continue to operate, taking in useless waste like green glass, and either surreptitiously porting it over to the landfill, or selling it at a loss after processing. Alarmists point out that landfills are running out of space, and that recycling is the only solution; in fact, demand for recycled materials is running out faster. And it isn’t just volume that is spoiling the economics of recycling

6. You Really Need to Clean Your Recycling

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Technically, you don’t absolutely have to clean your recycling for it to be accepted. But, doing so helps the recycling center save money, and improves their bottom line. And in some cases, if food containers that would otherwise be recycled are left to fester for too long, they are no longer salvageable, and become classic waste.

Of course, not every container made of supposedly recyclable materials is still a strong candidate for reuse; pizza boxes are a chief example, along with foil-lined beverage containers (because separating the metal from the cardboard or plastic is nigh on impossible, and a horrible waste of time). It may make them safer to drink out of, but it also ensures they can never be repurposed outside of a kindergarten craft project.

5. You Care More About Security Than Sustainability

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Remember how most of the recycling that goes on is actually downcycling? Well, every time you crank up that paper shredder, you are expediting the quality-loss process. Paper is broadly sorted by grade, which is based on the fiber in the paper. When you shred paper, you shorten the fiber, and effectively ax the resale value of any new paper made from your recycled stuff. Again, it comes down to economics: nicer paper is worth more, but recycling programs that make use of quadruple-shredded confetti can’t tap that market.

Instead, your old tax returns and love letters end up as toilet paper, which has no future in any recycling center. And, if the sense of security you get from shredding your sensitive documents overpowers your guilt, consider that paper shredders alone are far from secure in the first place.

4. You Rely Too Much on One-Bin Programs

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Historically, most programs required participants to do a lot more sorting: separate bins for cardboard, plastics, paper, tin, and even differently colored glass were the norm. The introduction of new machines to do the sorting—employing everything from magnets to weed out metals, to permeable screens—promised to make recycling programs easier, and boost participation. Hence, the one bin (or Single Stream) program: a resounding success that saw participation climb by as much as 30% virtually overnight. Unfortunately, the single-bin for recyclables dumbed down recycling too much, encouraging a lazy attitude that fails to distinguish good plastic (that can actually be recycled) from, say, plastic-coated Styrofoam, or foil-lined cardboard cartons from old UPS boxes.

You probably even adopted the now-endemic (and hopeless mistaken) approach of “every little bit helps,” and promptly began tossing your receipts and sticky-notes into the bin, as though they can be recycled just as easily and efficiently as reams of newspaper. They can’t. And your mistakes are increasing the operating costs of recycling centers by more than 50%. Just because sorting technology has increased recycling center automation doesn’t mean you are helping their bottom line by giving up sorting at home. In fact, these single stream programs just further distract you from an even bigger problem in recycling…

3. You Only Recycle Whatever is Easiest

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Aluminum is the easiest thing to recycle. That is probably why it is also the most commonly-recycled material in America. And while it retains its value through infinite reuses, it isn’t exactly rare. Compared, for example to the sorts of metals that are critical to the construction of cell phones, computers, and tablets—these things are literally known as Rare Earth Elements—and you can see the stakes are a little different depending on just what is being (or not being) recycled. Unfortunately, most people just toss this stuff when their old electronic products crap out (or are replaced by the newer, sexier version of the same thing), leading to the loss—landfilling–of nearly 75% of all consumer electronics every year in America alone.

Unfortunately, the convenience of curbside programs just hasn’t been extended to cover rare earth materials, so while aluminum continues to serve as the poster child for recycling, China continues to enjoy a virtual global monopoly on rare earth mining, ensuring prices stay high and consumers held captive. Oh, and it isn’t just consumer electronics that depend on these rare earth elements: wind and solar technology, those energy sources that are supposedly going to help us lick the petrol habit once and for all and go fully renewable? They are held hostage by the limited supply of rare earths too. But if we can’t even be bothered to sort our plastics, what are the chances that making a special trip to the electronics recycling shop is going to end up on our to-do lists?

2. Recyclables Aren’t the Worst Things in Landfills

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Of course, the market value of rare earth elements means that electronics recycling programs are increasingly common, from cell phone buy-backs provided by carriers (who want to sell you a new, more expensive phone anyway) to private chop shops that specialize in Stuff With Screens. While the promise of a little kickback might be enough to motivate you to withhold your old electronics from the trash collector, you are probably still merrily dumping all sorts of toxic waste into the garbage bin. From batteries to cleaners to fluorescent lightbulbs, American households generate more than 1.6 million tons of hazardous waste annually—add industry into the mix, and that total jumps to more than 41 million tons. Of that, a paltry 4% is recycled.

Of course, not all of it can be recycled—but there a very different standards for a toxic waste landfill than your friendly neighborhood garbage dump, so lacking the recycling option doesn’t give you carte blanch to just toss these toxic tidbits. Plus, some substances can’t legally be added to a landfill, and must be incinerated instead. But, curbside programs generally fall into the Garbage or Recycling categories, so unless you are making a deliberate effort to sort out the metal, glass, and plastic products that also happen to contain lead, arsenic, and other such unfriendly chemicals, you can rest assured that you just added industrial poison to the cocktail festering on the outskirts of your hometown.

1. You Should Really be Composting

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Even if all Americans participated, and all their local recycling programs were perfectly optimized and everything was cleaned, sorted, and processed perfectly, landfills would still be maxing out with waste and blasting CO2 emissions into the air. Why? Because the overwhelming quantity of waste isn’t glass, cardboard, or even plastics—it is food waste. And while there may be a healthy contingent of savvy chefs who delight in having a Second Thanksgiving comprised of clever in-home recycling of leftovers, that is far from enough to make up for the $160 Billion worth of food that simply gets tossed every year.

While a limited number of curbside programs exist for those unwilling or unable to do at-home composting, they fall far short of the scale of solid waste recycling. Unsurprisingly, composting is more common among people with their own vegetable gardens, who are in turn less inclined to waste the food they took pains to grow themselves. For the rest of us, Reducing and Reusing is fine in theory, but we’d rather just skip straight to the blue Recycle bin and call it a day.

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