We Need To Revamp Recycling
March 25, 2024

By Sabine Cuesta, 2024 Future Blue Youth Council member

In modern-day society, packaging is absolutely everywhere. From fast food containers to delivery packages, consumers can’t seem to purchase anything without tossing away a wrapper, box, or bottle. For the environmentally conscious, guilt over the ubiquity of single-use packaging is often soothed by the presence of a “recyclable” symbol. But despite the well-intentioned efforts of recycling programs, their effectiveness often falls woefully short, especially when it comes to plastic recycling. These programs face a variety of obstacles, from accessibility to improper disposal to contamination to cost—which limit the scope of their impact and reveal deeply rooted flaws in current recycling systems worldwide.

A major hurdle for recycling efforts is the accessibility of recycling receptacles, as well as recycling facilities. While household recyclable waste collection is relatively accessible in North America, it can be much more difficult to recycle in public. All too often, one is hard-pressed to find a recycling bin in public places—from beaches to cities to parks to shopping centres—and, for the sake of convenience, will toss a recyclable item in with the garbage. Not to mention the estimated three billion people worldwide who lack access to controlled waste disposal facilities altogether.

In addition to the accessibility of recyclable waste receptacles, the accessibility of recycling facilities must also be considered. Different materials fall under different recycling categories—as indicated by details on the recycling symbol—meaning that not all recyclables are created equal. Materials such as polystyrene, textiles, and plastic bags often require disposal at specific facilities that may not exist in all regions. This makes recycling certain materials inconvenient and difficult to access for consumers, causing many to dispose of them incorrectly.

Untitled Art - Savannah Meyer

“Untitled” by Savannah Meyer, 2015

Improper disposal can also be largely attributed to unclear labeling of the bins. Have you ever eaten from a fast food chain and been unsure of which bins to put the cups, lids, and napkins in? It can be daunting to decide whether the recyclable symbol means it belongs in the recycling, or whether the food remnants should land the packaging in the landfill. (In general, coffee cups tragically belong in the landfill after use, since many have non-recyclable linings or simply because they have been in contact with food.) Looking in the bins can be equally unhelpful, especially when you see the same items in both the garbage and recycling!

Unfortunately, even when recyclable items make it to the right bin there is still the constant problem of contamination from incorrectly placed disposables in the same batch. Sometimes, a contaminated item will even send the entire batch to the landfill, which requires spending to ship it out. That’s not all; the high cost is becoming difficult for many smaller recycling programs to sustain, especially considering that it is more expensive to recycle plastic than to manufacture virgin plastic—which is often derived from fossil fuels.

While the current state of North America’s recycling systems is less than ideal, there are many countries and regions whose recycling successes offer a beacon of hope. Germany, for example, incentivizes environmentally conscious citizens, who can receive a small sum of money for returning empty bottles to supermarkets or bottle return machines. They also employ the German Green Dot recycling system, which indicates that the manufacturer contributes to the cost of recovery and recycling—guiding consumers to make informed decisions.

In Zurich, Switzerland, residents are required to use official garbage bags purchased from the government. These bags are relatively costly, whereas recycling is free. Keeping consumers accountable, this system incentivizes low-waste households and promotes environmentally conscious purchases.

In Kamikatsu, Japan, residents strive to achieve a zero-waste lifestyle, sorting their garbage into 45 categories to maximize the items that can be recycled. They clean and dry recyclable items to prevent contamination, as well as keep unwanted but usable items out of the landfill with “kuru kuru” thrift shops—where residents can leave furniture, clothing, or other items they no longer want for other community members to take without cost.

While on the surface recycling seems to be the perfect solution for our single-use society, it is fraught with complications and obstacles that put its sustainability into question. This is not to say that recycling programs should receive less funding and attention, but rather to call out the rapidly increasing production of plastic materials, as well as the limitations of recycling practices. Plastic production is skyrocketing, projected to quadruple to one billion tonnes annually by 2050. That is equivalent to about 20 massive cargo ships—and that’s only plastic!

“Message in a Bottle” by Jessica Yang, 2016

Instead of having recyclable symbols tacked on products to seem more environmentally conscious, it is high time for manufacturers and consumers alike to turn to more biodegradable or reusable materials. Single-use plastics are all too often a matter of convenience—useful for mere minutes, then tossed away and forgotten. To address the ever-growing problem of plastic waste, improving recycling will not be—and is not—enough.

Until we collectively decrease demand for disposable items, here are some simple steps that can be taken by individuals to reduce waste. First, learn about the recycling system in your area—whether certain materials need to be taken to a specific facility, municipal guidelines for waste disposal, etc. Second, thoroughly cleaning out food containers reduces contamination and improves the efficiency of local recycling plants. Third, buying food in bulk can greatly reduce packaging, which comprises about a third of plastic waste. Finally, spread awareness! Whether it means informing your community of how to properly dispose of waste, writing to fast food chains to implement better waste receptacle labelling, or signing petitions to change legislation, it takes widespread knowledge and cooperation to bring about meaningful change.

 

Works Cited

Cho, Renee. “Recycling in the U.S. Is Broken. How Do We Fix It?” State of the Planet, 13 March 2020, https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2020/03/13/fix-recycling-america/. Accessed 10 March 2024.

Gould, Hannah. “From oil use to ocean pollution: five facts about the plastics industry.” The Guardian, 20 January 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2016/jan/20/from-oil-use-to-ocean-pollution-five-facts-about-the-plastics-industry. Accessed 10 March 2024.

Rosenthal, Elizabeth. “Thinking twice about the garbage.” The New York Times, 23 April 2005, https://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/23/world/europe/thinking-twice-about-the-garbage.html. Accessed 10 March 2024.

“Visual Feature | Beat Plastic Pollution.” UNEP, 1 March 2022, https://www.unep.org/interactives/beat-plastic-pollution/. Accessed 10 March 2024.

Ye, Michelle, and Hee Lee. “Kamikatsu, Japan’s zero-waste town, has lessons for a sustainable future.” Washington Post, 27 April 2022, https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-solutions/interactive/2022/japan-zero-carbon-village-climate/. Accessed 10 March 2024.

Zettler, Melanie. “Toronto recycling: Why so much material still goes to landfill – Toronto | Globalnews.ca.” Global News, 26 March 2019, https://globalnews.ca/news/5099574/toronto-recycling-packaging-landfills/. Accessed 10 March 2024.

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We Need To Revamp Recycling

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