Recently I read an article on NPR about recycling that got me very…huffy? Angry? Frustrated? Hurt? Upset? I don’t know exactly how to describe how it made me feel, but it wasn’t a great feeling. It’s called How Big Oil Misled The Public Into Believing Plastic Would Be Recycled, and I’m kind of embarrassed that it made me as upset as it did. Part of me feels like I should have known better (because I’m a cynic) and part of me feels silly for believing that anyone would try to make recycling an efficient process.
Do they even recycle?
I know I’ve talked about recycling before and how we should try to do our best to live a sustainable life for ourselves, but also for our children. One of the easiest ways, and the often recommended first step, is learning what can and can’t be recycled. But according to this article, a lot of places are just burying their trash now since we quit selling plastic to China.
Apparently that means that, even if we put forth our best effort to recycle, it doesn’t matter. Even if we put the time and effort into cleaning our recyclables before we recycle them, it doesn’t matter. Even if we drive out of our way, like I have to, in order to recycle, it doesn’t matter. These companies — even the city and county waste management — might not be looking for other options. Instead of figuring out how to either sell the plastic recyclables or recycle it themselves, they just bury it. So all the effort we put forth into separating our different types of plastics, our glass from our aluminum, and the good that we think we’re doing is for nothing.
You Can Recycle, But You Aren’t The Problem
This is where we get stuck. The blame shifts to the individuals — us as people — to fix the problem. But did you know that in the United States in 2017, there were 35,370 tons of plastic produced but only 2,960 of it was recycled? 5,590 tons were combusted with energy recovery, but 26,820 tons of plastic were still left in the landfill (EPA). There’s no way for me to know how much of that original plastic generated was put into recycling and just wasn’t recycled, but if plastic-producing companies decided to shift their focus from plastic production to plastic recycling, there would be far less plastic in our landfills and far less new plastic generated.
The majority of the blame here is on larger corporations. Instead of choosing to do the right thing for the environment, they only care about their bottom line and how much money they can make. Then we also encounter the issue of government. The US government, even though they would deny it, is in the hands of these large corporations. Big donors back the senators and representatives and, even though these are elected officials, they don’t represent the people who elected them.
So what do we do? Continue to Recycle?
My first instinct, honestly, was why bother? Why bother recycling? Why bother putting forth any effort into it if the powers that be aren’t even doing what they promised? But then, after I calm down, I realize that I still need to do what I can. I still need to play my part — and we need to hold corporations accountable for their part in the pollution and ruin of our planet.
The main thing we can do as individuals is to reduce our waste. Whatever this looks like for you, do it. If this means only buying local fruit and vegetables from a produce stand, do that. If it looks like choosing one meatless meal a week, do that. Everyone will have a different approach to reducing waste, and I’ve discussed that before, too.
As individuals, we can demand that companies take responsibility for their actions. We can demand change. Society needs to begin voting with our voices and our dollar. Something has got to give because if not, I’m afraid for my future, my daughter’s future and the future of the hundreds of millions of children to come after me.
We also need to realize that recycling is a last resort. We should strive, first, to reduce our waste. Then we should reuse what we already have. Recycling is basically a last-ditch effort to ensure that the waste that we have generated doesn’t end up in the landfill.