Is recycling too successful? While this may seem almost oxymoronic, some environmentalists think it is the case. Following the introduction of the Household Waste Recycling Act in 2003, recycling has become commonplace within UK households. The problem with this is the perception household recycling creates. Whilst recycling is not inherently a bad thing, some seem to think it leads to the belief recyclable waste is essentially not waste at all.
The Recycling Myth:
The ‘recycling myth’, or the ‘recycling fallacy’, is the assumption recycling alone solves all environmental and waste issues. The widespread belief is if we recycle more, we are justified in producing more waste, as there are no negative consequences. As the below graph shows, this is not the case – on average, less than half of EU nations' household waste is recycled.
Flore Berlingen, Director of Zero Waste France, had the following to say regarding the myth: 'The message about recycling is so positive that it becomes an incentive to consider that recyclable waste is not really waste,'.
The Problems with Recycling:
As well as the perception that recycling is the be-all and end-all to solving waste problems, there are issues with the act of recycling itself. Recycling is a step in the right direction and any time you use renewable resources, or secondary resources, there’s less carbon emitted than if you use primary resources. Other factors that need to be considered though are often not clear to the average UK household. Recycling does not address all aspects of sustainability, such as overall consumption; reusing products; or adjusting product design to reduce waste production. Market demand is also a key factor in the success of recycling. If the demand for recycled products is low and there is an inadequate recycling infrastructure, recycling efforts can be limited. For businesses, buying recycled materials can often be like buying second hand at full price. During the decrease in oil prices related to the COVID-19 pandemic, the price of ‘virgin’ plastics was lower than that of recycled plastics.
'It’s dangerous to say that recycling always has a lower environmental footprint than virgin material.' – This is the view of Pieter van Beukering, professor of environmental economics at the Free University of Amsterdam. The costs and energy used in recycling can vary massively from one material to another, so we cannot assume recycling is better for the environment in every instance. There is also the argument to be made that the emphasis of recycling needs to shift from making it easier to recycle, to getting people to consider whether they need to be over consuming at all.
Should We Still Recycle?
To be blunt, yes. The three Rs still raise the overall environmental consciousness across the globe despite the issues mentioned above. Even if a homeowner just starts by recycling at home, this could
lead them to composting or installing solar panels or other forms of environmentalism. Recycling can almost be seen as a sort of gateway to conserving the environment.
Recycling also reduces the amount of waste that goes straight to landfill or incinerators which, in turn, reduces the amount of water, air and land pollution generated by these sites.
The Bottom Line:
While there may still be work to do on the recycling process and the perception of reusing, it is still playing a key role in fixing the plastic issue. While recycling must not be stopped, it is clear there needs to be an honest discussion regarding the perception of recycling and how we use it to reduce consumption. Instead of reacting to the result of over consumption, we can try to tackle over consumption itself. With the combination of recycling and reducing consumption, we could make considerable leaps in the fight against the big plastic problem.
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