WHY CAN’T WE JUST RELY ON RECYCLING?
Did you notice that recycling only came fourth in the 5Rs list? Recycling is essential but is not the solution.
What happens with items you send to recycling? Paper and cardboard go to mills; glass is washed and re-used or smashed and melted, like metal and some plastic. But all these processes use energy and new inputs, including water – thereby creating waste. Knowing that we can recycle shouldn’t justify buying and using single-use items. Recycling is not a silver bullet. Our goal should not be to recycle more, but to have less things to dispose of, recyclable or not.
There are also many items that do not get recycled (even if they have a logo that looks like they could! Check the different logos here: the green dot with two green arrows does not mean the product is recyclable but that the producer has financially contributed to recycling capacity in Europe).
Plastic is where recycling gets most controversial. While virtually all plastics can be recycled, many aren’t because the process is expensive, complicated and the resulting product is of lower quality than the one you put in. Did you know that many of the eco-plastic, biodegradable, compostable items are actually not accepted in regular recycling by local councils? The eco-plastic container that you bought and conscientiously put in your recycling bag will end up in the rubbish – as do many recycling bags (e.g. Westminster council sent 82% of all household waste – including that put in recycling bins – for incineration in 2017/18).
So plastic is not being recycled as much as we hoped. And we have no satisfying way of dealing with this unrecycled plastic either: when burnt, while it creates energy and heat, it also releases harmful dioxins if incinerators are not efficient, and produces lots of C02, almost as much as a coal-fired power plant. When ending up in landfill, it can contaminate soils and even water if landfills are not properly managed; and if sent to another country, it often ends up in open landfills or is burnt outside with no filtering mechanism, causing considerable environmental damages.
Don't count on recyclinlg to significantly reduce your impact!
More info on plastic recycling here.