So, since we’ve been talking all about the 3 R’s – reducing, reusing and recycling this past month, I wanted to finish up by talking a little bit about why recycling should only be used as a last resort, after reducing and reusing.
Then, with whatever waste we have, we should reuse what we can. Whether actually reusing the items themselves, or repurposing them in a new way. I think things like hand-me-downs and composting fall into this category as well.
*(And on a side note, my hubs and I finally started working on making a compost pile at the back of our yard over the weekend. He’s going to make me some awesome dividers for the pile out of reused wood, and I can’t wait to share my composting adventures with you!)
I have a hard time when reading in a magazine, or something like that, where people are asked, “What have you done to ‘go green’?” and one of the most common answers is “We recycle as much as we can.” To me, recycling isn’t really the point, usually it doesn’t really require much sacrifice or change – it’s the reducing and reusing that really cause us to think about the amount and kinds of waste we are creating. Recycling still means that we have the waste to begin with, that then needs to be recycled.
While recycling is a better option than throwing stuff into the trash to sit in a landfill for who knows how long, it is definitely not a perfect system, or without it’s own impact on the environment.
Recycling’s Environmental Impact
Recycling requires energy
From the recycling trucks that come to pick up our curbside recycling, to the plant itself, recycling, of course, requires energy. And sometimes a lot of energy depending on the type of material being recycled. While it takes much, much less energy to produce items out of recycled material rather than new virgin material, reducing and reusing waste still uses the least energy of all.
Recycling plants can emit pollution
The actual act of recycling materials can often emit pollution into the air, water and soil. For example, paper recycling often requires strong chemicals to remove the ink from the paper, and these chemicals along with chemicals from the ink itself, can then make their way into the water system.
And paper recycling also leaves behind a sludge, made up of bits of paper fiber, ink that has been removed from the paper, and fillers, which is then sent to the landfills. So recycling creates it’s own types of waste as well. The livestrong.com site has tons of great information about recycling and the effects, both positive and negative, of recycling on the environment.
Also, recycling plants (as with most different types of plants) are often located in low-income neighborhoods. So the people that live and work in those communities are exposed to higher levels of the pollution from the recycling plants.
This is really an issue of environmental justice, which is something that I have been learning about recently. This is a great TED talk on the subject, along with ideas for how to combat it. And this is an organization, that my little sister has visited, that works for environmental justice in Chicago. It’s really an interesting topic to me, one that fits right in with learning to love people and care for creation at the same time.
Photo by timtak
Recycling doesn’t address the core matter of consumption
As I already mentioned, recycling waste means that you are still creating waste that need to be recycled. It doesn’t get to the core matter of reducing consumption and waste first and foremost.
We live in a consumerist society, so reducing our consumption is something that goes against everything that is driven into us as a society. But my family has found as we are working toward living a simpler life and reducing our consumption that we are actually much happier than when we were chasing after the “American dream”.
I think it can be easy for people to think that they are doing what is best for the environment by recycling, when what is really best for the environment is reducing consumption which, in turn, reduces waste.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating that you just starting throwing everything that you previously recycled into the trash! I just want to encourage us (myself included) to look at our recycling the same way that we look at our trash, and see if we can come up with ways to reduce and reuse so that we’re putting less into both the garbage can and the recycling bin. Maybe I need to a recycling inventory next? What do you think?
Have you thought about the environmental impacts of recycling before? Do you try to use recycling as a last resort, after reducing and reusing?