For many people, environmentalism begins with looking for the recycle sign on the plastic packaging and ends the moment it goes into the blue bin. There is a certain contentment that accompanies them when they keep a big bunch of otherwise trashed items outside for the recycling truck to collect every week. Recycling materials is the first thing that comes to mind when one decides to go eco-friendly. The idea that certain material can be converted into something else is appealing. The recycling movement has gained immense momentum since it began in the 1980s. It is the bare minimum one can do while being responsible for their leftovers.
Unfortunately, the concept of recycling has also given permission for people to consume mindlessly, shop more than required, and discard what they don’t need without a single thought. Recycling has reinforced consumerism, and given birth to a new industry.
Here is why recycling is not as sustainable as we think.
1) There are simply too many materials in existence than what we can recycle.
There are too many plastic objects ranging from toys to containers to industrial parts. The supply of plastic packaging supersedes their demand. No matter how responsible people get in terms of disposing of them, the recycling industry simply cannot accommodate so many materials.
2) Not all plastic is recyclable
Most people forget the fact that just because you recycle something doesn’t mean it will be recycled. It is a little more complicated than that. There are different varieties of plastic. Sometimes the same kind of plastic needs to be treated differently. For example, #2 yogurt containers cannot be recycled but #2 milk bottles can be. This happens because the yogurt containers are ‘injection-molded’ while the milk bottles are ‘blow-molded’. The two techniques create chemical combinations that react differently when they are melted down. Hence the yogurt containers are not recyclable.
3) Recycling is energy intensive
Processing materials requires the use of machinery, equipment, and labor. This raises concerns about how energy-efficient recycling is. While recycling plastic requires less energy than manufacturing virgin plastic, it is certainly not free in terms of resources.
4) Limited recycling of plastic
Unlike glass and aluminum, plastic can be recycled only 2-3 times. Plastic is made up of polymer chains. Each time it is recycled, the chain becomes shorter. In addition to that, virgin plastic is also added to it to make it ‘look appealing’. After it has been recycled multiple times, plastic finally ends up in a landfill contaminating the ground and water resources.
Dirty plastic cannot be recycled. In other words, recyclable packaging materials soaked in grease and gravy are as good as trash. Even if certain recycling facilities choose to wash them, it takes enormous amounts of water and chemicals to turn them worthy of recycling.
Also, read Are you a part of The Plastic War?
What can we do to combat this?
A good place to start is to remember the 5Rs
Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repurpose, Recycle
- Refuse – Say a kind no to those swag bags, extra cutlery, plastic-wrapped products, take-out containers, disposables, and junk mail.
- Reduce – Reduce the consumption of impulse purchases, swap discarded items for useful ones, rent things you will use rarely, carry your cutlery
- Reuse – Opt for items that can be reused multiple times like steel bottles, glass lunch boxes instead of plastic wraps, and cotton coffee filters instead of coffee pods. It also means repairing things when they break instead of trashing them.
- Repurpose – Turn on your creative power to see how something can be used for an alternative purpose instead of being discarded. Using old clothes for rags, existing plastic containers as planters, milk jugs for vertical gardens, etc
- Recycle – Despite the challenges continue recycling when none of the above 4Rs work. Clean out dirty containers, sort them appropriately, and take responsibility instead of resigning to the NIMBY phenomenon (Not-In-My-Backyard).
The best long-term solution, albeit challenging at the start, is to move towards a plastic-free lifestyle. The journey can be made less arduous by accepting the change with an open mind and taking it one step at a time. For more tips to go plastic free, read Green Tips to go plastic free.
At Green Schools Green Future, we believe in leaving behind a legacy of a Clean Earth and Clean Resources for our children instead of trash-laden landfills. GSGF is passionate about improving the situation for future generations to come. To learn more about our project, click here. If you are one among those warriors who envisions a safe, clean and bright future for the next generations, join our team and we can be the change we want to see in this world.
Written by Kritika Rao