Recycling isn't working: here's why

Photo by  Jonathan Chng  on  Unsplash

Ever since China stopped accepting most foreign recyclables in 2017, our trash has nowhere to go. The global recycling market is crumbling, the cost of recycling is skyrocketing, fewer materials are being accepted, and cities are forced to suspend their recycling programs or find stopgap solutions like incinerators and landfills in order to cut costs.

In chaos there is opportunity: could it finally be time to rethink our relationship to waste? For too long we have been relying on foreign powers to take care of our dirty work and have our trash disappear through the backdoor. And for too long this has been used as an excuse for many of us to consume even more.

We need to face our waste head-on and to realize that a transition to a less materials-intensive economy is the only foreseeable, profitable, viable option. The recycling industry is flawed, confusing, volatile, and it places too much responsibility on the consumer. Even when we recycle correctly, we are told that ‘recycling’ does nothing. So what’s the deal?

Problem #1: We never really had to care

In many European countries, it used to be common practice to toss trash out the window. It wasn’t until the causality between trash-filled streets and the spread of diseases was confirmed, that waste management systems were a consideration to urban planners and city officials. Yet as soon as these systems were introduced, it gave way to this “out-of-sight-out-of-mind” mentality, which until this day gives us every excuse to toss our trash and never think about it again.

Our ways of life are set up to ensure we give as little thought as possible on how we dispose of our waste. Trash cans and toilets have become fixtures in our lives that we all take for granted. As soon as our product has fulfilled its use, it becomes worthless, empty, devoid of value, repulsive even. Taking an extra 15 seconds to think about what bin to place our trash in has been made inconvenient and sometimes stressful: we want it off our hands immediately. If you can identify with that feeling, it is not your fault. We have been conditioned to feel and act this way. There was a time when garbage was glamorous, and single-use packaging was advertised as convenient, elegant, and affordable. Starting in the 1930s, we were told to consume, consume, consume, and throw away as much as we pleased. Who wouldn’t buy into that?

Our blindness to where our waste ends up makes us undisciplined, unaware, and confused about how to recycle. We let too many variables affect whether we recycle or not: understanding how to recycle, individual perceptions about the importance of recycling, the particular placement of a recycling bin, personal connection to a product (ie. whether a name is on it), how distorted the packaging is, and even mood and weather.


Problem #2: We’re getting mixed signals

Marketers are skilled at understanding consumer behavior and investigating what motivates us to buy a product (ie. shelf placement, colors, typography, branding, etc). Yet little to no consideration is given to extending a product’s lifetime, to researching and acting on the factors that encourage positive recycling behavior. With packaging materials becoming increasingly complex, the confusion surrounding recycling keeps growing. Multinational corporations, whose logos are all over our landfills, have the responsibility and the resources to encourage recycling through hyper-strategic design and messaging approaches. For example, studies have shown that people are less likely to recycle a product that has been distorted or crumpled, even if they know that it is recyclable. With that in mind, companies should design packages less prone to distortion.

With the introduction of single-stream recycling in some communities, a system in which different kinds of recyclables (plastics, paper, metals, glass etc) are put into a single bin, instructions have gotten simpler and convenience has increased. Yet public education campaigns are so focused on getting us to recycle that they’re forgetting to educate us on what not to recycle. To some, plastic is plastic, and they are ready to toss anything from plastic bags, to saran wrap, to electronics in the blue bin thinking they are to be recycled. Whether this is done out of carelessness or with good intentions (called “aspirational recycling” or “wishcycling”), it causes more harm than good. And when people discover that they have been doing it wrong all along, it is deceiving and discouraging, often creating apathy in people who eventually lose faith in the practice altogether.

Again, it is not entirely our fault. Most of the time, we are left in the dark when it comes to whether a product is recyclable or not. Our packaging rarely contains instructions that explicitly direct recycling behavior. We cannot rely on symbols and numbers for instructions either – that includes the Universal Recycling Symbol. It is untrademarked, unregulated, and available in the public domain. This means that no authority controls how it is used and altered nor who places the symbol on what product, even if it is non-recyclable. Some of us feel better about buying a product with the symbol because it means it can later be recycled, but the reality is that it means the product was made from recycled content, not that it is recyclable. It is not intended for consumer use or to indicate recyclability, it is an internal code for the plastics industry.

Problem #3: We can’t keep up

Even though simpler recycling instructions may encourage participation, increased participation is only beneficial if the recyclables are accepted at the community level and ultimately by the end-markets that collect them as raw material.

As an alternative to labels, turning to our community for recycling guidelines is not an easy feat. Because the recycling industry is not standardized and is under no federal guidance, information indicating what’s accepted or not, and instructions on how to prepare our waste, are often unclear, hard to find, and inconsistent from one community to the next. How are we expected to keep up if different haulers, recycling centers, municipalities, and markets all have their stipulations on what can and can’t be accepted in the blue bin? We are in desperate need of a platform that harmonizes all of this information, updates it regularly, and presents it a consistent, clear fashion. Having instructions all in one place will dramatically reduce confusion and encourage participation.

Technically, virtually every manufactured product can be recyclable. Yet recycling services are only available and functional if there is a manufacturer buying recycled products as raw material. This means that in order for a product to be recyclable, there has to be a demand for it, which in turn determines what can and cannot be accepted in the blue bin. This is an extremely flawed system that affects individual recyclers all the way to manufacturers who collect recyclables as raw material.

Money is all it comes down to. With the China ban, recycling is becoming an unprofitable venture; so long as this system is still in place, we should be buying products made out of recycled materials in order to further stimulate the market for those recyclables and encourage domestic manufacturers to fill the void that we let foreign powers create.

Problem #4: We’re not incentivized

How is recycling expected to win if it is pinned against profit? City officials and manufacturers get to make decisions on the availability of recycling programs based on money; it should come to no surprise that consumers are doing the same when it comes to participation. To quote George Marshall from Don’t Even Think About it: Why Our Brains are Wired to Ignore Climate Change, people are more willing to shoulder a burden if they “share a common purpose and are rewarded with a greater sense of social belonging.” After the Fukushima nuclear disaster, residents of Tokyo voluntarily cut energy use by 20%, even through summer heat. During the Great Depression, families carried their lunch in old biscuit containers and used flour sacks to make clothing. During World War II, Americans were encouraged to collect paper, scrap metal, and even cooking waste for the war effort.

Back then, people recycled to save money and resources, to make ends meet, or to serve their country, without paying too much attention to the environmental benefits of doing so. Today, the focus is on the environment. Yet the goal of “saving the planet” in the long-run is too abstract and distant for people to be investing taxpayer money and time dedicated to waste collection services. Naturally, we do not face waste, and climate change by extension, with the same level of urgency as we do with war and famine.

Climate change lacks salience: it does not feel dangerous, there is no specific visible change involved, information about it is constantly evolving and is sometimes contradictory. For now, recycling is only a moral obligation, a voluntary act, a service of goodwill to our environment. The positive consequences of recycling, just like the negative ones, are not readily available nor measurable. Cognitively, it is interesting how we use the lack of immediate consequences as a justification for inaction (ie. not recycling), yet in other cases, we use it as a justification for action on other things (ie. theft, crime).

Problem #5: We’re disillusioned

And then we read things like this: “Recycling plastic is to saving the Earth what hammering a nail is to halting a falling skyscraper. You struggle to find a place to do it and feel pleased when you succeed. But your effort is wholly inadequate and distracts from the real problem of why the building is collapsing in the first place.” We start wondering whether recycling is useless, that our efforts don’t matter.

The article quoted above is not as defeatist as it seems to be: it criticizes recycling because it obscures the real problem at hand, being corporate pollution and the production of single-use plastic. Yet when it is titled “More Recycling Won't Solve Plastic Pollution,” in a world of reductionist, clickbait headlines, people only get half the story. We register “the myth of the recycling solution,” “recycling is broken,” “the answer isn’t recycling,” so we stop recycling, and even perpetuate the idea that it is useless, even though these are all titles to articles that do not in fact discredit recycling, but rather point to plastic production as a more urgent problem.

Yes, recycling gives people the moral license to produce and consume more. Yes, plastic production is the real enemy. Until our manufacturers and our federal government start having a serious conversation about where our waste is going and how to reduce plastic pollution, we cannot afford to stop recycling. I for one am thankful that China is leaving our trash out on our front steps and is giving us the opportunity to have this conversation once and for all. Better late than never, right?