FAQ – Why Recycling Should Be A Last Resort

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.

Our first goal should always be to reduce the amount of waste we create, as much as possible. This blog has some great tips for getting started with reducing your waste all around the house.

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?


  1. says

    This is such an excellent post. I recently had the opportunity to tour a recycling plant in my region with a leadership class I’m in. I live in Southern California and I was really suprised to learn that the plastics collected from our communities are trucked to the Port of LA/Long Beach and shipped to China where they “recycle” the plastics into more consumables that get shipped right back to us! Talk about leaving a carbon footprint! I was so suprised – this flew in the face of what I thought I knew about recycling. It truly should be a last resort after reducing and reusing!

    • Emily says

      Thanks Margie,
      The shipping of plastic across the ocean to be “recycled” is something I have heard of before, but actually forgot to research more for this post. Thanks for bringing up that point. That’s definitely something that I want to look into more, once I do, I’ll probably either update this post, or I’ll have to write another post about it!

  2. says

    I agree, recycling should be the last step, done only when you can’t reduce or reuse. I did a huge recycling project for several years at a convention, where I feel people are somewhat justified in drinking single-serving beverages because they’re away from home for days, but it’s tragic if those thousands of containers get landfilled. (Especially the aluminum! Recycling aluminum saves SO much energy and pollution compared to making new aluminum!) Still, the fact that recycling was available didn’t make me drink a lot of single-serving beverages; I bought them only when I had meals at places that didn’t have real glasses, and the rest of the time I drank TAP WATER–what a concept! There are hundreds of water fountains in that convention center, and most of them work perfectly and the water tastes good, yet there’s rarely a line for them, while people buy bottled water and carry it around…aargh!! I still attend that convention every year (thanks in part to my efforts, the center now provides recycling) and now carry a cup so I can drink more water without bending over the fountain. I use those semi-durable plastic “kids cups” that some restaurants give my 6-year-old no matter how clearly I say, “real glass” when ordering!

    During my years of convention recycling, I talked with several people who worked in the recycling industry. Metals and glass typically get recycled relatively nearby. Plastics and paper and electronics are more likely (though not at all certain) to get shipped to other countries. I still think it’s better than landfilling, esp. for plastics and electronics since they’re made from non-renewable resources and won’t biodegrade, but it’s disturbing that our global economy is set up in ways that make that financially feasible!

  3. says

    Sadly, a good portion of what gets shipped to less-developed countries for “recycling” ends up getting picked over by hand for anything of value to sell to the recyclers, and the rest sits in ever-growing piles presenting health and environmental hazards to the locals. Reducing our consumption puts them out of work. What’s worse, a paltry income next to a heap of someone else’s garbage, or choosing to either starve or move to a giant city for badly-paid high-risk factory work?
    Environmental and human justice are indivisible for me on this issue.

  4. Allison says

    Great post. A blog called “Zero Waste Family” echoes your ideals. This blogger’s motto is “reduce, reduce, reduce…and then-and only then-do you reuse and recycle.” What a great TED talk, too! I cried at one point. There’s another good TED talk along these lines by Van Jones called “The Economic Injustice of Plastic.” Environmental justice IS about caring for and loving people. I am really nodding my head to your words! There are so many good ways to implement this that make us more intentional people, who live examined lives. I have friends who’ve committed to buy no new clothing for one year. I have committed to buy no clothing/shoes ‘new’ for myself, but, if I do buy for myself, I buy 2nd hand. When we go to restaurants, we often bring our own food containers for leftovers. We ‘rescue’ all kinds of things from dumpsters or the side of the road–drinking glasses, a recliner, flip flops. And the creativity and resourcefulness involved are thrilling to experience.

  5. Julie in Houston says

    I think we really need to focus on what we always say…

    1. Reduce
    2. Reuse
    3. Recycle

    It’s listed as the last option so we need to be sure to follow the order. Reduce what you’re using….reuse what your using…and then finally recycle it.

    Great blog! Just found you!

  6. says

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  1. […] natural products in order to be green, or go green.  In fact, I think the opposite is true – reducing consumption and reusing things whenever possible, as well as making do with what you already have, are the best and easiest ways to start going […]

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