Zero Waste Living: What’s Wrong with Recycling?

Zero Waste

At some point in your life, you’ve probably been told how important it’s to recycle. Maybe you’ve seen some posters encouraging people to recycle instead of sending valuable materials to landfills.
However, if you’re starting a zero waste lifestyle, it might sound strange that recycling isn’t the best practice to avoid waste! Although it’s a great way to encourage people to live more sustainably, there are better alternatives to go zero waste!
If you want to improve your zero waste living, keep reading to know why refusing, reducing and reusing are better than recycling!

Why Recycling isn’t the Solution to the Problem?

Recycling can still having waste end up in landfill
Recycling is a great option to avoid the extraction of new resources and prevent valuable materials from being wasted. But, it isn’t a perfect solution. In fact, it’s the last step of zero waste. Check the common problems of recycling to learn more about it:

It doesn’t tackle consumerism

It makes people believe that recycling all the things they buy is enough to protect the environment. So, instead of being conscious consumers, people will keep buying more stuff while thinking that there won’t be consequences for nature. You can recycle after all, right? Well, it’s more complicated than that.

It can be a downgrading process

Some materials are downcycled instead of recycled, particularly plastics and paper. In other words, these materials go through a downgrading process to create new products with lower quality than the original. As a result, you can’t recycle them indefinitely.

“Recyclable” doesn’t mean it will be recycled

It’s sad but true that most of the things you put in the blue bin won’t get recycled. Even if the material says it’s “recyclable”, it doesn’t mean you will actually be able to recycle it in your area. Different places and facilities accept different materials.
For example, there are several products made of recyclable plastics. But in real life, only 9% of all plastic waste ever produced has been recycled, according to the United Nations.

If it can’t be recycled, it will end up in landfills

As you noticed before, some materials can’t be recycled indefinitely and others won’t be accepted in some places. Unfortunately, these materials will end up in landfills or incineration plants. This is the opposite of your zero waste goal, isn’t it?

Recycling uses too much energy

Even though it can save natural resources, it still requires huge amounts of energy for collection, sorting and processing.

It’s costly

It requires an investment in planning, technology, labor and others. Because of this, it can be cheaper and easier for some places to send waste to landfills instead.
Additionally, it’s like any other business. It needs to be profitable to continue with the program. Therefore, most places discard materials that cost more to recycle and have low demand in the market.

Does Zero Waste Mean You Shouldn’t Recycle?

Recycling is a useful activity to teach people the importance of taking care of the environment with small actions. That said, if you do want to reduce your environmental impact and go zero waste, you shouldn’t focus on recycling. You can go a little further by refusing, reducing and reusing!
If you refuse and reduce, companies will focus on having zero waste practices and creating better products for the environment. And if you reuse, you won’t need to buy new things!
But let’s be honest, it’s impossible to be completely zero waste. Sometimes, you will have a few items that you couldn’t refuse, reduce or reuse. That’s when you should recycle!
Zero waste doesn’t mean you shouldn’t recycle, it means you should have less stuff to recycle in the first place. Remember the following zero waste mantra: Avoiding waste is more important than looking for alternatives to manage it!

Why is Recycling Important?

First of all, let’s clarify that recycling is not a bad practice. Actually, it’s a good alternative to manage waste, but you should combine it with other zero waste practices. Some of its benefits include:

  • It can introduce people to the waste problem and encourage them to protect the environment. Better yet, it can be their first step to start a zero waste lifestyle!
  • It’s a great option to keep valuable materials useful for a longer time. Also, it reduces the need of creating new landfills!
  • Recycling some materials, like aluminum and steel, requires less energy than using virgin materials to create new products!
  • It creates jobs to design recycling facilities and programs, collect, sort, and process materials.

Best Tips to Recycle More Effectively

Recycling is part of zero waste movement but alone is not enough
Now that you’ve understood when you should recycle, you need to know how to do it properly. Even though it should be your last zero waste step, these tips will help you get the best out of it!

  • Do your research. Find out what materials you can recycle in your area, and avoid sending those things they won’t accept.
  • Choose wisely. When buying new products, choose materials that you can recycle indefinitely, such as metals.
  • Sort your materials. If you throw everything together, you could contaminate valuable materials in the bin, and they won’t be suitable for recycling. Again, do your research!
  • Put clean, empty and dry materials. Don’t send dirty materials because they won’t get recycled and they could contaminate clean materials!
  • Don’t put broken glass in the recycling bin. This practice can harm workers who collect and sort materials.
  • Don’t throw compostable plastics in the bin. These items aren’t recyclable and workers will discard them.
  • Don’t bag your recyclables. Workers will throw away the plastic bag with its content because it could damage processing equipment.
  • Get involved. Teach your neighbors what things they can recycle and how to do it properly. If you do everything fine, but your neighbors don’t, it could affect the recycling rate. You can also encourage them to start some zero waste practices!

Howard, Brian Clark. “5 Recycling Myths Busted.” National Geographic. 31 Oct. 2018. Web. 24 Nov. 2020.
“Our Planet Is Drowning in Plastic Pollution. This World Environment Day, It’s Time for a Change.” #BeatPlasticPollution This World Environment Day. Web. 24 Nov. 2020.
Author: Monica Chang
On my own ethical journey since 2010. Always happy to learn more!