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 was the answer to our global waste problem but having researched this area I’ve learned that this is very far from the truth.

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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 Collection contributes to Climate Change
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
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.

Also 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 can be mixed with anything, which has the effect of turning it into a ‘product’ which is often burned or sent to a landfill.  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, it’s actually downcycled. Due to contamination from liquid, glue or paper plastic water bottles are not recycled into new plastic bottles, instead the plastic is more likely to end up in polyester carpet or as recycled clothing. On the face of it this doesn’t appear to be a problem but can I ask you when was the last time you bought a carpet / toys / clothing that was made from recycled plastic? Just because something is possible doesn’t mean there is a market for it. 

Similarly, recycle paper is not used for most paper products. Instead, it’s downcycled into recycled toilet paper and glass that’s isn’t separated into colours is used in sand blasting rather than being recycled into new glass bottles.

So Little of our Packaging is Actually 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 recent campaign to clarify what’s recyclable in Ireland and what isn’t has had an unintended effect; it’s highlighted for people just how much of our waste is not recyclable, including black plastic, foil lined wrappers, soft plastic packaging, pvc, etc, etc. Most of the people that I’ve spoken to since the campaign was launched are shocked at just how much packaging is not recyclable and it’s lent weight to the ‘reusable over recyclable’ campaign from the Zero Waste Community.

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 indicates 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 Prevent 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 every bit of plastic ever produced will eventually end up in landfill or incineration; recycling just pauses it on route. That is unless we invent a new plastic waste processing system. I think this sketch explains what is happening very well. different waste systems

Recyclable doesn’t mean it’s 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. 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 did you know that waxed paper and most receipts aren’t downcyclable? Wax parchment or greaseproof paper are not downcyclable because the coating on the paper makes it impossible for the paper mill to convert the paper fibres into pulp as part of the downcycling process. Similarly, most modern receipts are thermal paper coated with BPA plastic which prevents them from being converted to pulp. Concerns over the health implications of BPA plastic is might suggest that it would be best not to put them into the composter too.

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.  My local bin collection company who informed me that 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.

Are you feeling overwhelmed about how to tackle this problem? Don’t be, 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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