The Truth About Recycling

October 9th, 2015
Human waste management and disposal is a massive global problem that needs to be constantly addressed. Recycling is often promoted as the ultimate solution, with programs available around the world to help save energy, reduce waste, and re-use important resources. While recycling is essentially good for the environment, it may not be as helpful as you think. The collection, transportation and recycling of waste materials requires a lot of energy, with the practice of recycling also widely criticized for providing a false sense of security.

In this day and age of environmental awareness, recycling is often seen as a magic solution. Various recycling schemes are available around the world, all of which aim to convert waste materials into new products. Glass, plastic, paper, metal, textiles and electronics can all be recycled, with these materials collected, cleaned and reprocessed into new materials before being introduced into the manufacturing process. While these schemes are all well-intentioned, according to some critics, the entire recycling process is problematic.

Most products today are not designed with recycling in mind, with a great deal of energy required to reprocess materials. Most of this energy comes from non-renewable sources that release pollution and other by-product emissions into the environment. The collection of recycled products is also problematic, with additional trucks and resources often needed to transport recycled materials. According to some critics, recycling is actually a zero-sum game, with the pollutants and waste produced from making new goods simply shifted into the recycling industry.

Most recycling experts would strongly disagree, however, with Washington-based environmental consultant Jeffrey Morris saying "Even if you doubled the emissions from collecting recyclables, it wouldn't come close." According to Morris, aluminium recycling is said to use 96 percent less energy than standard production, with plastic bottles requiring 76 percent less energy and recycled glass saving 21 percent energy. According to other critics, however, the real problem with recycling is not related to energy consumption, it's about the false sense of security that it provides.

The "Reduce, Reuse and Recycle" waste hierarchy was originally established as a way to measure environmental program priorities based on sustainability. While recycling is the third component of the hierarchy, it gets the vast majority of government and media attention. Even though recycling is undoubtedly good for the environment, its over-representation can lead to a false sense of security. With so much money invested into recycling programs, people never learn the even more important skills of waste reduction and material reuse.

In order to have a positive and long-lasting impact on the environment, people need to reduce their waste, reuse their products, and make better choices when purchasing goods. Recycling alone has been found to lead to an attitude of entitled consumerism, where people feel good about purchasing harmful products such as bottled water just because they can recycle them. While recycling is undeniably an important part of the waste solution, truly responsible environmental action requires a much broader focus.

Image source: Monticello/