I was in middle school when I first heard about recycling at home. That was back in the mid-1970s, when the push to recycle began in earnest. I am now in my late 50s. Over the decades I have learned a lot, and I’ve come to a conclusion about recycling: though it’s a good thing, it is ultimately just a delay tactic.
We recycle now in order to keep recyclable materials out of landfills and incinerators. In so doing, we ostensibly reduce the waste stream while simultaneously protecting the environment. Again, all of this is good. But recycled products cannot be recycled indefinitely. They all eventually become waste at some point.
A Temporary Reduction in Waste
The vast majority of plastics the world produces don’t get recycled even once. They go right to the landfill or incinerator after just one use. But for the sake of this discussion, let us imagine someone came up with an effective recycling process overnight. Starting tomorrow, all plastics will be Fullformsadda recycled.
We would see an immediate reduction in the waste stream. Trash haulers would be picking up significantly less trash. Landfills would not fill up quite so quickly. But guess what? The reduction in the waste stream would only be temporary.
At some point, all that recycled plastic will become waste anyway. So as soon as recycled materials caught up with those materials at a natural end-of-life, the total volume of waste being produced would return to previous levels.
Recycling Reduces Material Integrity
The reason recyclable materials cannot be recycled indefinitely is a reduction in integrity. Take industrial scrap plastic. Seraphim Plastics is a Tennessee company that relies on a mechanical process to recycle everything from plastic tubes to dunnage trays and buckets.
Mechanical recycling involves reducing industrial plastic waste to small pellets or flakes using grinders or shredders. The pellets and flakes can be mixed with virgin plastic to make new plastic pieces. It cannot be used exclusively because grinding and shredding reduces its integrity. It needs to be mixed with virgin plastic to ensure quality in the finished product.
This dictates that manufacturers can only use a certain ratio of regrind mixed with virgin plastic. The new products they produce can also be recycled after use. But then what? The integrity of the resulting material is reduced. With every reduction in integrity, you get recycled material with fewer applications. Eventually the material is completely useless and must be sent to a landfill.
Not a Complete Solution
The lesson in all of this is pretty simple: while recycling is a useful tool for reducing waste and extending landfill life, it is not a complete solution. What’s more, we aren’t even close to coming up with a recycling process that guarantees a truly circular life for any particular material.
Every human process generates waste. It is unavoidable. Therefore, a truly circular economy isn’t possible. Indeed, there are things we can and should do to reduce waste as much as possible. But we will never eliminate it completely. That’s why we shouldn’t put so much hope into recycling as a way to ostensibly save the Informenu planet.
Better Ways to Do It
To the extent that recycling does help us take better care of the environment, there are better ways to do it. Any desire to continue recycling should be fueled by efforts to develop those better ways.
Recycling is a worthy enterprise if we can do it without breaking the bank. But we must always remember that recycling is a delay tactic, at best. Eventually, everything we recycle will become waste.