Recycling is often seen as the solution to our escalating waste problem, but the real heroes in waste reduction are other R’s like reduce and reuse. I’m going to shed some light on some flaws of recycling and why we shouldn’t rely so heavily on it to save us.
For some materials, recycling hardly counts as a diversion strategy. For example, in 2016, Canadians disposed of 3.2 million tonnes of plastic with packaging accounting for 47%. Only 25% of plastic was collected for recycling, and worse, only 9% was actually recycled [Ref].
Barriers to Recycling: Why is so little material (especially plastic) collected?
Mixed Materials: Packages composed of a mix of materials (plastic, metal, paper, etc.), are a problem because materials need to be independent to be effectively recycled. Separating out the materials ranges from difficult to impossible. Most materials recovery facilities (MRFs), like ones run by the Loraas Disposal (Saskatoon) and Emterra (Regina), aren’t set up to separate the packages, so they are excluded from the program and not collected. A few mixed packages can be partially disassembled by consumers, but few people are willing to go to the extra effort.
No Recycling Symbol (plastics): A keen recycler can separate plastic, paper, glass, and metal, but plastic’s recyclability is also determined by its type, using the number inside the small triangle symbol. Some packages don’t contain any recycling symbol. Without the symbol, the plastic typically isn’t accepted in the recycling program.
No Markets (often plastics): Most programs limit which types of plastic they accept, for various reasons. Some plastics are tricky to recycle (#3PVC contains chlorine, which can release toxic gas when recycled), or aren’t present in large enough amounts to bother trying to find a market for.
Geography: Canada is big and not every community has the luxury of recycling collection services. Regardless of an item's recyclability, it’s uncollectable without a functional program in the community. The cost of getting recyclable materials to distant markets can be prohibitive for some programs, further decreasing the amount of recycled materials collected.
From Collection to Recycling
Further complicating recycling’s effectiveness is the difference between the amount of recycled materials collected and the amount actually recycled. Factors contributing to this difference include:
Contamination (Unclean): Packages that are contaminated with dirt and food scraps are typically rejected because they interfere with the recycling process. Not only do the unclean items entering a collection program get pulled out and sent to the landfill, but dirty items can contaminate previously clean packages, making them unrecyclable as well.
Contamination (Non-Recyclable): Items that end up categorized wrong at the MRF, i.e. plastic or metal lids in with the paper, or unacceptable plastics mixed in with the good stuff, can cause the whole bale to be rejected – landfilled. This issue is a combination of the limitations of recycling sorting technology and the limitations of human attention to recycling rules.
Market Demand: Collection programs try to align their accepted products with recycling markets, but markets fluctuate. Clean, accepted, successfully collected and sorted plastic can still hit a recycling dead end if the MRF struggles to sell it.
The term 'recycling' can be misleading; a more accurate term is 'downcycling.' Plastic and paper, when recycled, decrease in quality with each regeneration. Paper can be recycled up to 7 times [Ref] before the fibre becomes too short to make into a product. Plastic can only be recycled 2-3 times before it degrades too much to use. [Ref] Recycling often requires a mix of recycled and virgin material to meet product quality standards. Glass, though more effective at being recycled into products of equal quality, faces challenges due to the low price of virgin materials the environmental impact of shipping such a heavy product and the lack of bottle-to-bottle recycling plants. Metals can be recycled back into the same or similar products but are heavy and costly to transport as well.
If you've come across the term 'circular economy', downcycling is an example of the linear system that the circular economy aims to disrupt.
A Circular Future
These complexities help explain the waste reduction movement's emphasis on reduce and reuse before recycling.
While this information may seem discouraging, it's not a call to abandon recycling or your efforts to recycle clean and accepted materials. Recycling remains a crucial component of waste management but should be considered a last resort. If there's no alternative and an item can't be avoided, resold, donated, or repaired, then please recycle it. But let's collectively work towards a future where this excessive reliance on recycling becomes obsolete.
As for where we go from here, find some inspiration by looking at the work of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. Committed to creating a circular economy, they envision a world without waste and pollution, where products and materials circulate at their highest value, regenerating nature. Visit their website for numerous examples of how we're transitioning from a linear to a circular model, creating better outcomes for both people and the environment. You’ll find many examples of how we can, and how many are, moving away from a linear model and embracing a circular economy.