Why recycling is not enough

Growing up I was always taught to believe that recycling was the right thing to do, that it was a solution to the problem of generating waste.

When we recycle something, we tend to feel good about ourselves. We’re doing the right thing, we’re saving the planet, right?

Unfortunately the truth is that it’s not as simple as that. Due to contamination, the size of the pieces or lack of suitability, only about 20% all waste put in recycling bins actually ends up being recycled.

As I’ve mentioned before on this blog, and as many of you may be aware, China has recently stopped accepting the rest of the world’s plastic recycling, leading to huge issues with recycling piling up in other areas where we have nothing cost-effective to do with it.

Because of this, and a host of other reasons (including the massive amount of single use plastic currently being produced and ending up in our oceans, lakes and rivers, and then in 95% of our tap and drinking water, and the fact that even when recycled, there is only a limited number of times something can be recycled), we can’t just feel like by recycling we are doing our part. Before recycling should come 1) Eliminating – turning down single use plastic items like straws or utensils, 2) Reducing the use of plastic items 3) Reusing – reusing plastic bags or other plastic items multiple times and finally, when all other options are exhausted, then 4) Recycling.

In the end, recycling is not the golden solution that many of us were taught when we were kids. Not all materials have significant value in their recycled form, many are made of multiple material types (making them hard or impossible to recycle), some can only be recycled a limited number of times (recycled plastic gets downgraded each time, until it is no longer usable) and it takes significant energy and cost to transport, process and recycle materials.

While it can be depressing to realise that an action you felt good about is actually not as helpful as you thought, it’s important not to despair. Education is the first step, and there are indeed many small things you can do that will make a positive difference, including reducing, occasionally going without, educating others, and making your voice heard to corporations and your local governmental representatives.

Low impact living: Why bother?

A question that many people pose when it comes to doing small, good actions for the environment is – why bother? If it’s not convenient for me, why should I do it? My actions aren’t going to make a difference, I’m just one person.

Or another common objection, “How are you be eco-friendly if you still take flights/use a cell phone made of parts with a large negative impact/ etc.?”

I think there are three important points to make here.

The first, which I think is most relevant to me, is the idea of living in alignment with your values. As I have embraced the concept of mindfulness more in recent years, I’ve tried to become more conscious, aware and mindful of all of my choices, and the impact that they have. For me, this also meant thinking more about the waste that I produce, and trying to minimise it wherever possible. This has also meant trying to buy more of my clothes secondhand, to purchase things with less packaging, and to eliminate meat from my diet. Am I perfect? Far from it. I still buy some clothes new, I still occasionally eat fish, and I sometimes still slip up and end up having to use single-use plastic. I do what’s feasible and practical for me at this point in my life, keeping in mind the impact that my actions have, and minimising it where I can.

The point is, even if one person’s personal impact is small, I think the idea of living in line with what you believe in is worthwhile.

Secondly, and related to the first point is the ripple effect impact of one person’s actions. If through my choices I can inspire others to make small changes to their daily habits, together these small actions may add up to a larger impact.

There’s a saying, don’t doubt the power of a small group of committed people to change the world, indeed it’s the only thing that ever has. If everyone thinks that what they do personally doesn’t matter and is never going to make a difference, then of course things are never going to get any better.

Finally, I want to acknowledge the fact that while individual actions are a great starting point, and one that we have the greatest control over, what’s really going to make the difference is systemic changes, through policy and by corporations. The average person just does not have the bandwidth (money, time, willingness) to go to extreme lengths to be eco-friendly. Corporations and governments need to step up and take responsibility for making eco-friendly choices not only easy, but the default option – the only option. And one catalyst for getting them to do so will be more people making noise, caring about the issues and living those values in their own everyday lives.

Not to grow is not to wither

The men in suits
Think that things
Should grow

The men up in the towers
And on the television screens
Speak of never-ending growth
And order “Keep on buying things!”

They tell us not to worry,
We all must do our part.
Wrapping up our presents
Ripped from mother nature’s heart.

The goods run down the factory line
Churning out production
Must meet this quarter’s targets,
Or face employee reduction

Machines pass bottles
From left to right,
Robots replacing bodies.

How could we
Have put up a fight,
When we’re brainwashed to believe
That growth’s a democratic right?

What will come of man,
Without work?
Just idle hands,
Will we go berserk?

Will we slowly scroll
Our way into oblivion?
Materialism ballooning
Across every meridian?

The owners of capital
Relax in their villas
People take to the streets,
Movements of guerillas

“How would you like
Your facts today?”
A polite inquiry.
“We serve them in many ways,”

“Will you take them scrambled?
With a side of white lies?
Will you take a gamble
On a full portion of facts?

Surely you couldn’t stomach that
Half a portion will do,
And don’t take them too fast
Take some time to chew

You might feel ill,
Facts these days,
Not so easy to swallow…

But what when we stop,
and we spit out their lies
When we take back our time
and open our eyes?

Reject their false desires
The wants they’ve created.
When we rediscover
What it means to be sated

When we recalculate need
And refuse to exceed it
Eschew the greed,
And decline to feed it

When will we realise
that not to grow
is not to wither,
To slow is not to die.

When we return to what’s basic,
What’s ours and what’s true
We’ll realise it’s not growth,
What we need is gratitude.