A word that has increasingly become synonymous with the notion of “sustainability” is recycling. The general idea that people have is that after you’re done using a product, you place it in a special bin where its eventually collected, processed and remade into an entirely new product. Although this is somewhat true, it’s not that simple.
First of all, not all recyclable products can be recycled back to the same thing. With the exception of glass and some metallic products such as aluminum cans, most recycled products are “downcycled” into things of lesser quality and functionality. For example, plastic computer accessories might be chipped down to plastic beads, and high quality printing paper will be converted into toilet paper. In the event that a product is “upcycled” or recycled into what it once was, additives are needed and more often than not, these include virgin resources. Evidently, this is not sustainable!
Secondly, not everything you “recycle”, gets recycled. Again, the idea is that recycling is not as simple as it seems. For example, most plastic bottles must have their lids attached, must be empty and must be clean for them to be recycled. Although you can sometimes get away without doing all of these things, 7 times out of 10- your bottle will be discarded if it doesn’t adhere to these simple guidelines. In other cases, your product may not even be considered for recycling- case and point: blue glass bottles in some parts of Monroe County.
Lastly, just because products have the same general name, doesn’t mean that they go into the same recycling bin. Plastics for example, have over a dozen types and each of them is recycled differently. Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics (e.g. disposable water bottles) go through an entirely different process to your high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastics (e.g. opaque milk jugs) which also go through a different process to your polystyrene (PS) plastics (e.g. Styrofoam and plastic cutlery). Furthermore, some of these plastics are non-recyclable, and so mixing them with other plastics just contaminates the batch which will eventually end up in the landfill or as we now know, somewhere in the oceans.
That being said, the most “sustainable” thing you can do is to reduce your consumption. Avoid unnecessary purchasing, reuse as much as possible and buy durable, reusable and recoverable appliances/tools/utensils etc. As it stands, recycling is an art that few have perfected, yet many use to justify their excessive consumer culture. This is not to say that you shouldn’t recycle- by all means, please do! However, if you decide to, do so properly. In my opinion, improper recycling might be just as bad as not recycling at all.
Written by Adil Nyambasha, Class of 2018.