The Dirty Secret of Recycling
Make Recyling Better!
Welcome to Polymathic Being, a place to explore counterintuitive insights across multiple domains. These essays take common topics and explore them from different perspectives and disciplines and, in doing so, come up with unique insights and solutions. Fundamentally, a Polymath is a type of thinker who spans diverse specialties and weaves together insights that the domain experts often don’t see.
Today's topic is painful for me to write as I’m an environmental conservationist who has spent the better part of my life recycling. Over the past years, I’ve realized that what I thought was helping the environment may not be having any benefit at all. Today we dig into our broken recycling system and find out why we need to forthrightly address and fix these issues versus just feeling good about recycling. This is envisioned to be part one of three. This one will identify the problem and the other two will introduce those who are working to something about it.
It always feels great to see little adverts about recycled products becoming useful again. Legoland in Florida had hundreds of benches advertising that they were made from over 800 recycled milk jugs and that little surge of satisfaction made me even more motivated to dutifully recycle as much as I can at home.
The Psychology of recycling ties us into something greater than ourselves. It’s an aspiration toward the larger societal good and leverages our need for social acceptance and signaling. Studies show that engaging children in early elementary and middle school helps increase recycling rates and instills a feeling of environmental responsibility that persists through adulthood.
Yet, while those milk-jug benches are a recycling success story, the real truth of recycling should have us rethinking the entire system. In fact, the same psychology that keeps rewarding us is also blinding us to the actual and critical harm we are doing to the environment while thinking we are helping. Let’s step back and look at the entire system of recycling and, in doing so, identify a better way to approach the situation.
The Dirty Secret of Recycling
Recycling has been sold as the solution to our consumer material waste problem and as a panacea of environmental stewardship. Yet just under the thin veneer, we find we are hiding terrible outcomes while not changing our consumer behavior causing these outcomes. For example:
Of the plastic that is recycled, emerging evidence indicates that mechanical recycling is the main culprit in releasing dangerous microplastics into the environment.
Retail stores that accept plastic bags end up putting them in landfills because of the difficulty of recycling them.
The National Plastic Bag Recycling Directory closed down in late 2023 after an ABC report found the majority of trackers ended up in landfills.
The majority of what you put in your recycle bin gets sorted and then shipped overseas or dumped in a landfill.
Recycle processing of mixed plastics requires the use of heavy chemicals that may actually be worse than landfilling and making new plastics.
Recycled paper is often contaminated with plastics and, while India banned imported plastic recycles in 2019 due to the environmental impact, plastics still arrive in the recycled paper they do use and are often illegally dumped and end up polluting rivers, lakes, and the ocean. As Bloomberg reports:
India likely brought in more than 500,000 tons of plastic waste hidden within paper shipments in the past two years, according to a government environmental body that estimated the level of contamination at 5%. While the government allows up to 2% contamination in recycled paper, lax enforcement at ports means no one’s checking. (emphasis mine)
US-recycled materials were bundled and shipped to China. In January 2018 China banned the import of many recycles (which were often hazardously processed) resulting in an unprecedented amount of material you put in that recycle bin ending up in the landfill instead.
Electronic Waste creates an even more horrific story from toxic wastelands in Ghana, Asia, and India where children burn the plastics to extract metals. Yet all this electronic waste was intentionally recycled by Western Nations.
It seems like a Catch-22 of recycling. Despite my best efforts and environmental contentiousness, the stuff that does get recycled has consequences and everything else either ends up in the landfill or, worse, in massive overseas pollution meaning I’d have been better off to have just thrown it away to begin with!
The Science of Recycling
Most of us are familiar with the Reduce, Reuse Recycle “chasing arrows’ triangle. The challenge is that this does not mean it can be recycled. For a quick video overview of the limits to recycling:
For the sake of brevity, I’ll just use the example of plastics in this section because it’s the most complicated. Within that ‘recycling’ logo sits a number representing different categories of plastic grouped by their resin which binds that material.
Each resin melts at a certain temperature, so when it’s recycled into a new item, it needs to be melted down at the right temperature or it won’t become useful. Not all resins can be recycled and not all recycling groups can handle all resins:
Recycling plastics comes with its set of challenges. For instance, plastics like PEEK, PET, etc., come in various grades, and not all can be easily extruded and printed. Additionally, parts made from commodity plastics (1 to 6, with a few in 7) are often originally injection-molded, which complicates their compatibility with extrusion recycling.
Let me restate: just because a product has the chasing arrows symbol doesn't mean it's recyclable — it's just an indicator of the type of plastic. This is where the first confusion arises because, if you read your recycling rules closely for your local pickup company, you’ll find the list is much shorter than the number of products carrying what we interpret as a recycling logo.
Of these 7 categories of plastic, only two are typically and easily recycled. #1 PET and #2 HDPE. Where it starts to get messy is that #3, PVC which is ubiquitous in household products, is not recyclable from consumer material.
The remaining 4 plastic types (#4-7) are possible to recycle but are very difficult and more often than not end up contaminating the recycle streams of the first two! For example, plastic bags, #4, LDPE, are incredibly problematic because they clog up the recycling systems and contaminate useful plastics.
Simply put, plastics are expensive to collect and sort given that there are now thousands of different types of plastic. Worse, they can’t be melted down together and they also degrade after one or two uses. Greenpeace found the more plastic is reused the more toxic it becomes which raises new concerns.
Another example of the challenge these different polymers present is captured in the recent Lego announcement that they were no longer exploring opportunities to make their bricks from recycled PET plastic. While many environmental groups saw this as a failure, the larger issue within the environmental groups is their inability to understand the different forms and functions of plastic. PET, even when not degraded through recycling, is still too soft to replace the Lego Bricks that are made from much harder ABS. It’s not a failure of recycling per se, but a failure to understand where that recycled material best fits.
The Psychology of Recycling
Two years ago, I had been diligently collecting glass for recycling. I then found out that the city of Tucson no longer accepts glass. After public outcry, they put special dumpsters around town to collect glass. Yet, in talking to a source involved in the process, a garbage truck picks up the glass and hauls it to the dump anyway.
The psychology involved affects me as much as everyone else. It’s a dopamine hit to think we are doing something altruistic and environmentally conscious. I knew my glass was ending up in the landfill yet I still deposited it in the special dumpster.
A similar story was relayed to me by an employee at Dallas Fort Worth Airport where this fellow would take the wheeled garbage bin through a terminal, collect the trash, and deposit it in the garbage compactor. He’d then go back and collect the recycles and deposit them in the same compactor. The issue was that hasty passengers would contaminate the recycles with trash making it too difficult to sort.
Yet they never removed the recycle bins. They just hid the reality from travelers while allowing them to think they were being good stewards of the environment. It feels good to recycle and that blinds us to the actual impact we are having.
Taking Effective Action
Now that we’ve faced the dirty secret of recycling I don’t intend for us to despair and just throw everything in the landfill. Instead, I hope it galvanizes us to step back, look at the larger system, and take effective action to fix the problem
For instance, the mantra, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle often ignores the first two in the misplaced psychology that recycling is helping. Instead, if we focused on Reducing, and Reusing we’d significantly lower the volume of virgin plastics manufactured and their subsequent waste stream.
Reuse is another key benefit. For years I’ve taken my lunches to work in grocery store bags to give them a second life. Even more, the single-use containers that some lunch meat is packaged in can have years of continued reuse as containers for leftovers (and yes, I was one of those kids who grew up fully expecting the Cool-Whip container in the fridge to contain leftover green beans instead)
Another step is to realize that there are success stories like Sweden which became so efficient at recycling that it imports waste from other European countries. Incredibly, less than 1% of Swedish household waste has been sent to a landfill since 2011. They’ve achieved this through very strict cleaning and sorting requirements and a culture that is fully behind the effort.
Another action is to push our designs of plastics for better reuse or recycling. This step could reduce our single-use plastics and make them have a more effective ‘next life’ use. They can also design products that stop mixing recyclable materials thereby rendering them unable to be recycled.
For example, most food packaging falls in this second category where chip bags, candy wrappers, and more contain both metal foils and polymer layers to be durable while sealing the food from the environment. While both the metal foil and polymers could be recycled on their own, we aren’t able to separate them in their wrapper form rendering them impossible to recycle.
Only focusing on recycling, as many of us in Western Nations do, leads us on a path where we continue to churn out single-use plastics that are causing incredible environmental problems, all while believing, wrongly, that our recycling is a panacea.
There are incredible opportunities to fix the problem but these require us to step back from the psychology and dopamine hits we’ve been conditioned to accept and realize we’ve been blinded to the reality.
As I said earlier, I hope this galvanizes us toward effective action that reduces our environmental impact, improves our ability for next-life use and recycling, and achieves the outcomes we are hoping for. It’s painful to start but in that pain is the answer.
What ideas do you have or are you working on to help improve our ability to recycle?
Let’s keep the conversation going on Substack Chats! I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we can do this better.
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