Is Recycling a Lie?


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We here at Neonaut Light and Magic are curious and interested in the subject of waste reduction and recycling, so you can imagine we were quite nonplussed when we read NPR Planet Money’s recent story, How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled.

When I was researching plastic recycling I learned that a lot of plastics really can’t be recycled efficiently, and that a lot of this recycling wasn’t cost-effective, but I didn’t appreciate that the entire concept was a PR scam so companies could keep making plastic products without consumer pressure.

Just to be clear, whether or not I buy a product with plastic packaging is irrelevant–this is a problem that requires legislation. I can use reusable bottles and buy gatorade powder, for example, but ultimately government regulation is required to reduce and eliminate harmful products. Putting the onus on the consumer so Big Business never has to be responsible about anything ever is an old, tired trick.

Here’s why. Take the Gatorade. We exercise a lot and drink gatorade, and you can buy it in plastic bottles or you can buy it in powder in bulk. Powder form is not available at any nearby grocery store so I need to drive a bit farther out to get it. Is it more efficient to drive extra to get the gatorade or should it be ordered online? The bulk powder container is not recyclable either, but it apparently creates less trash than the equivalent in plastic bottles. Of course, the resulting trash is only part of the issue. Products are not made in a vacuum, the process that makes one product might use more resources than the process that makes another. Should I start making homemade Gatorade to completely avoid this entire scenario, even though a common ingredient is drink flavoring that comes in unrecyclable foil/paper packets? People will argue consumers are lazy and do what is convenient but look at how many decisions I can parse for a very simple task: acquiring Gatorade.

Take a different product: berries. All berries sold in this area come in #5 plastic clamshells. I don’t think anyone is suggesting I stop eating berries, I’m just pointing out for some products there is no alternative or packaging option, they simply arrive how they arrive. So that clamshell goes in the trash. Nothing doing.

My point is the consumer can only do so much based on the products available, outside going without things they reasonably want or need, and hanging the moral weight on consumers when they have few to no good choices is deranged. The problem is not as simple as “just recycle” nor is it as simple as “conscientious consumption.”

When I told Marlin about the article he was like, “Why recycle any of it?” but it sounds like the main money sink is miscellaneous plastics like 5 produce containers, 6 containers and lids, etc. 1 & 2 soda bottles and milk jugs are still mostly recycled. Paper, glass, cardboard, and metals appear to be mostly recycled as a profit can still be derived from them.

I looked for recycling critics and didn’t find any articles that were particularly convincing but I did find an interesting PBS article, When Does Recycling Your Plastic Make Sense? The Answer Isn’t So Simple, that expands on some of the complexities.

I am still curious as to whether it makes sense to put paper into the recycling stream or compost it. As far as I can tell, high-grade paper (office paper), glossy paper, and windowed envelopes are things that benefit the recycling stream and cannot be composed but obviously “lower grade” paper, like previously recycled paper, brown bags, pizza boxes, etc., either cannot be recycled or are better candidates for composting.