Why Recycling isn’t the Answer


Moving towards a Zero Waste Lifestyle has been a real eye-opener for me. I mistakenly thought that recycling would deliver us from our global waste problem but having researched this area I’ve learned that this is very far from the truth.

If you’d like to find out why recycling isn’t the answer to our waste woes read on

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Why Is Recycling Damaging?

Recycling Leads to MORE Waste!

The report ‘The Effect of Recycling versus Trashing on Consumption: Theory and Experimental Evidence‘ which was published by Monic Sun, Remi Trudel from Boston University in May 2016 indicates that ‘the positive emotions associated with recycling can overpower the negative emotions associated with wasting’ and that this can lead to people being more wasteful than if recycling was not an option.

Even if recycling didn’t lead to increased consumption there are other factors contributing to the environmentally damaging effects of recycling. By listing these factors I’m not saying that recycling isn’t less damaging than landfill or incineration but the impression that recycling in itself if a planet positive action is completely erroneous

Unnecessary Production is Inherently Wasteful

The production and transportation of raw materials and products uses up energy and resources, which is fine if it’s something that we really need, but do we really need plastic packing around our aubergine or yet another plastic Christmas decoration wrapped in cellophane?

Waste Processing Create Emissions

The trucks that collect your green (recycling) bin typically run on fossil fuels and so every time we put them out for collection we’re contributing to climate change  😦

Recycling uses Precious Energy and Water

Although it may be better than landfill or incineration, recycling isn’t an environmentally positive process.  It requires energy and a huge amount of water, which becomes waste water at the end of the process that needs to be recycled or disposed of.

Also recycling can’t reclaim all the energy embodied in an item, so even if something is fully recycled we’re still worse off from an energy point of view than if the item was never produced. The amount of energy recovered when materials are recycled differs from material to material. It can be as high as 95% as is the case with aluminium and as low as 40% as with glass.

Recycling isn’t Waste-free

When paper is recycled, it’s all mixed together into a pulp. That pulp is washed, cleaned, and then pressed into new paper sheets. During that process, wastes like paper fibers, inks, cleaning chemicals, and dyes are filtered out into one giant pudding known as paper sludge. This by-product of the paper recycling needs to be disposed of.  Some argue that making virgin paper from managed forests is less energy intensive and less polluting than recycling paper.  (Source: Listverse)

Recycling or Downcycling?

It’s a misnomer to say that plastic is recycled, most plastic is actually currently downcycled, and by that I mean made into a product of lesser value than the original. On the face of it this may not appear to be a problem but the market for lower value plastic isn’t reliable and we could end up recycling plastic that doesn’t end up being used.  

Similarly, recycle paper is generally downcycled into recycled toilet paper.  Also glass that’s isn’t separated by colour isn’t recycled into new glass bottles, instead it’s used for sand blasting or road construction.

Most Packaging isn’t Recyclable

Most of us stop thinking about our packaging as soon as we put it into the green bin, and we assume that most of the packaging we buy is recyclable. A campaign in 2017 to clarify what’s recyclable in Ireland had an unintended effect; it’s highlighted just how much of our waste is not recyclable. People were understandably shocked and dismayed.

What was the government’s solution? Demand only packaging that was actually recyclable was put on the market? No! They negotiated with the Waste Processing Companies to allow non-recyclable plastic collected in green bins!

I used to be under the impression that the following symbols meant something was recyclable. Now I know that the whole issue is much more complicated than that. The first symbol on a product means that the manufacturer or retailer is a member of Repak, nothing more.

The second series of symbols indicate which resin the plastic item is made from but because plastic products can be made using different processes you can’t assume that two products made from the same resin type can be recycled together.

Not Recycling Symbols

Recycling Doesn’t Avoid Landfill

Before I started out on my zero waste journey I thought that once something was recyclable it meant it could be recycled over and over again. This is true of metal and glass but unfortunately paper can only be recycled 5-7 times before it is no longer recyclable for recyclable plastic it is 3-5 times. This means that most recycled plastic will eventually end up in landfill or incineration

Industry is working hard to make plastic infinitely recyclable and there have been great improvement but generally plastic recycling requires the addition of virgin plastic somewhere along the line.

Recyclable doesn’t equal Recycled

In Ireland our waste industry is a profit-making industry, which inevitably means that if it becomes too costly to recycle something the industry will stop recycling it. This has been the case with tinfoil and aluminium food trays. Aluminium is a highly recyclable materials and can be recycled infinitely but because tinfoil and food trays are often contaminated with food it’s harder to derive clean aluminium from the process. It may still be worth doing it but the existence of plenty clean post-consumer drink cans means it’s not as attractive. So the tinfoil, aluminium food trays, metal tubes, aerosol cans go to landfill or incineration. I have been told that if sent for incineration aluminium may be collected from the bottom ash and sent for recycling.

Also, small pieces of recyclable material are often sieved out at the start of the sorting process and go straight to landfill or incineration. Similarly, the plastic labels on plastic bottles are typically downcyclable but because they’re not of interest to the plastic bottle downcycling companies they’re typically sent back to the waste sorting company for disposal in landfill or by incineration.

Health Risks from Contamination

Recycling is a messy business and there are grave concerns over cross contamination. , with recent research finding that recycled plastic bottles leach more chemicals into drinks. Consumers often put stuff into recycling that shouldn’t be there in the first place and if they put in something that contains a toxin, like paint in an aerosol can, there is a chance that this could contaminate aluminium that goes onto to become soda cans, as this article from 2021 suggests. Also, BPA coated paper that ends up in recycling could be recycled into toilet paper, which we end up using on our delicates!

Why are things such a mess?

It’s clear to me that successive governments put their energies into encouraging recycling rather than support moves to a low-waste lifestyle and now that a whole industry has been created around recycling they’re invested in its continuance.

I also think that the huge amount of misinformation makes it very hard for those of us who genuinely want to support a circular production cycle. For instance waxed paper and most receipts aren’t recyclable?

I think the lack of correct information about downcycling or is for two reasons; producers aren’t obliged to give correct information on their packaging and most people don’t really want to think about waste and just want it out of the house.  According to my local waste collection company 30% of the waste they collect for recycling is not recyclable at all, and we all know households that put EVERYTHING in the recycling bin without giving a thought to whether it’s recyclable or not.

What’s the best things to do?

Are you feeling overwhelmed about how to tackle this problem? Don’t be, just focus on avoiding packaging where you can and check out my article on Six Weeks towards Zero Waste and become part of the solution.


Published by Elaine Butler

I am a circular design consultant helping manfacturers prepare for the circular economy

6 thoughts on “Why Recycling isn’t the Answer

  1. Thanks Elaine. From someone who feels guilty and overwhelmed by the whole waste/ recycling thing and have often thrown everything into the recycle bin hoping that it would all end up magically, ideally, repurposed.


    1. I have done that too. There are days when it is just too much. I think we should cut ourselves some slack on those days and focus on the good choices that we already make. The world generally isn’t ready for pioneers 🙂


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