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Is Recycling Worth It?

(Photo above by Jilbert Ebrahimi via Unsplash)

We’ve all heard the three Rs of environmentalism: reduce, reuse, recycle. You may have first learned about this in elementary school, from government resources, or the Disney and Schoolhouse Rock collaboration song where Mitchell Musso sings about how three is the magic number (and that plays out like a weird childhood fever dream).

But did you know that the words are in order of importance? Reducing your consumption is the most effective way to minimize your footprint. Musso even sings, “and if the first two Rs don’t work out, and if you make some trash don’t throw it out. Recycle.” Wise words from a Disney child actor.

Americans have been fed the lie that recycling is an easy and powerful habit that anyone can adopt. But not only is it less helpful than  we’ve been made to believe, it can actually be more difficult to do correctly than many realize.

In 2017, 267.8 million tons of trash were disposed of per day in the U.S. alone. Of that, only 67 million tons were recycled, or 25 percent. This figure does not even include everything that is landfilled, as industrial and hazardous waste is excluded from municipal solid waste (AKA trash) calculations. Paper makes up the majority of what is recycled, at 66 percent. This makes sense because paper is easily recyclable and can be recycled up to seven times. Plastic, glass, and wood together, however, only accounted for 4 to 5 percent of total recycled materials. This is problematic because plastic makes up 13.2 percent of total trash generated.

Plastic bottles take, on average, 450 years to decompose, while other plastic items can take up to 1000 years. Additionally, many plastics don’t even make it to the landfill, polluting ecosystems and killing animals. Some plastics can be recycled, some can’t. Some aren’t recyclable curbside but can be dropped off at a local center. Some are sometimes recyclable curbside depending on where you live. This is the second big issue with recycling.

Recycling is not as easy as seeing the recycle symbol on an item and tossing it in the green bin. In the U.S., what items are acceptable curbside varies by neighborhood — and sometimes even within them. For example, my neighbors down the street receive tax-payed county trash collection. But those on my street have to pay for their own trash service. When you pay for your service, your provider will tell you what you can and can’t recycle. But when you have a public service, it can be more difficult to find that information. Oftentimes, you have to search old and non-user friendly local government websites.

Because recycling information is not always readily available, people end up recycling some things that don’t belong. When something non-recyclable is recycled, it can contaminate the bin it’s in. That whole bin must then be placed in a landfill.

Things like glass (must be intact and not broken to recycle!) and plastic shopping bags can sometimes be recycled, but usually not for regular curbside pickup. If people even know about these drop-off centers, the extra effort needed to collect their recyclables and drive there may dissuade them from actually using them. Glass seems sustainable, because it takes less energy to produce items from recycled glass, and the majority of recycled glass is usable. But the fact is that not a lot of glass is or can be recycled.

This is not to say that recycling is bad or that you shouldn’t do it. But if you do recycle, please do it responsibly so that what you discard actually does get recycled. And if you want to live sustainably, consider the first two Rs first.

  • Do you think recycling is worthwhile?

    • Yes, of course!
    • Only if done responsibly
    • Only if the U.S. improves its system
    • Not really

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Written by Abby Sacks

Student at the University of Virginia studying Psychology and Media Studies. When not writing or hanging out with my cat, can be found watching too much bad TV and being too old for TikTok but enjoying it anyway.

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