When consumers drag their recycling bins to the curb, chances are they feel pretty good about what they’re doing. Perhaps they feel proud. Maybe even virtuous. After all, by filling up that recycling bin they’ve made an effort to do something good for their community and the environment. They’re doing the right thing. Right?
But how do they truly know it’s the right thing to do — and not just the convenient thing to do?
Some of the consumers who feel so virtuous about their recycling efforts are practicing what is called aspirational recycling. That means instead of limiting their recycling bins to items their local municipality can process for recycling, they toss in the things they think should be recyclable.
Sound familiar? If you’ve ever tossed something in the bin out of sheer hope — perhaps a plastic shopping bag, a glass jar with food residue or even a grease-stained pizza box — you’re an aspirational recycler. But when you try to recycle items that can’t be processed, instead of having a helpful or even negligible impact, the reality is that those efforts can do more harm than good.
Reduce, reuse, recycle … rewind
As a manufacturer of protective packaging solutions with a commitment to sustainability, Sealed Air encourages its customers and all consumers to recycle whenever possible. But aspirational recycling can have the opposite result. Just one misplaced item in a recycling bin can make the entire contents contaminated, causing the other perfectly good recyclable items in that bin to end up in a landfill.
I’m sure you’ve heard of the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. But consider the larger picture. Recycling is a local activity; every municipality sets its own rules about what’s allowed in recycling bins based on what kind of municipal solid waste recycling system is in place.
The best course of action — for a municipality or a consumer — isn’t always straightforward. For example, if there’s no glass recycling facility nearby, glass items placed in a recycling bin will get trucked to the closest facility that can process it. The trucks needed to carry that glass likely negate the potential environmental benefits of recycling the material by generating more exhaust from burning fossil fuels.
And recycling isn’t an inexpensive endeavor. Sometimes communities have to make a choice: Fund the 911 line or accept glass for recycling?
Likewise, if consumers put something that can’t be recycled — such as a plastic shopping bag — into their curbside bins, trouble could ensue for a municipality that’s unable to handle that material. The bags get tangled up in the recycling equipment, wrapping around rotating parts of the machinery, causing it to clog and shut down. Meanwhile, all those wasted materials end up in a landfill.
What happens to our waste?
There's no doubt that aspirational recycling contributes more materials to the waste stream than the recycling stream. The way to stem this flow of recyclable materials to landfills — or, alternatively, to the ocean if they are mismanaged or littered — is to address the root cause. If recyclable materials such as plastics have value after their use, then there will be an incentive to recover them and reuse them.
At the moment, however, the value of recyclables is debatable. One of the leading causes of the debate is China’s decision to stop buying the world’s plastic waste.
Since 1992, instead of recycling, many developed nations had been selling massive amounts of plastic waste — 106 million metric tons — to China. That all changed in 2018, when China’s National Sword policy went into effect, banning imports of plastic waste. Since then, the waste that would’ve been shipped to China is ending up in landfills, being incinerated or going to other countries that lack the infrastructure to properly manage it. It’s estimated that more than 100 million metric tons of plastic will be displaced by 2030.
So, what do we do about this growing recycling problem? We start by stemming the flow at its source.
Imagine this scenario: You walk into your kitchen to find water all over the floor and a leaking faucet. What's your first reaction? Do you grab a mop and start cleaning while the water continues flowing, or do you stop the leak at its source first, and then grab the mop?
The answer is simple. Stop the leak and then clean up the mess.