We’ve Been Recycling the Trash We Produce for Decades. Experts Say It Hasn't Made a Difference

Society thought that sorting our waste was a good way to fight pollution. Well, we thought wrong.

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Pollution is a major challenge of our time. It took our civilization centuries to realize that humans were creating a negative environmental footprint with our waste, which has now reached unmanageable levels. Microplastics serve as a good example: They’ve ended up in remote regions of the Earth and even made their way into our bodies and those of animals.

Recycling was one of the strategies that was supposed to curb this footprint. However, experts now say that all those decades of enthusiasm for recycling have failed miserably.

The study. The University of Virginia conducted a study to analyze and understand citizens’ awareness of different waste management strategies and preferences. The study found that while efforts to educate the public have made recycling an important option for consumers, it has also led to a focus on recycling at the expense of more sustainable options like waste reduction and reuse.

A total lack of awareness. Although most study participants opted for recycling, they struggled to execute it correctly. This was due to the current system’s complexity, which forces consumers to separate recyclable materials and keep contaminants out of the trash.

The researchers asked participants to sort waste into virtual recycling, organic, and trash bins. However, many incorrectly placed common contaminants like plastic bags (58%), disposable coffee cups (46%), and light bulbs (26%) into the wrong bins, thinking they were doing it right.

“Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” We’ve missed the point. We should focus on preventing the creation of waste in the first place, rather than trying to manage and mitigate its impact later. The University of Virginia’s study also asked participants about the most effective way to reduce landfill waste or solve associated environmental problems. Most cited recycling and other post-production strategies.

In other words, the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” slogan that some organizations, such as the United Nations, adopted a few years back hasn’t seemed to be very effective. Surprisingly, more than three out of four study participants (78%) ordered the strategies incorrectly. Only when given a choice of two options (waste prevention and recycling) did 80% of the participants understand that waste prevention is much better than recycling.

Plastic recycling is not very effective. All this highlights a significant problem with plastic materials, which, in the end, has the same origins in the lack of prioritization we’ve just mentioned. Unlike some other materials, plastic can’t be efficiently recycled and reused due to its inherent properties. For instance, while the U.S. has a high paper recycling rate of 68%, its plastic recycling rates are only at 9%. This demonstrates the challenge of recycling plastics not lying in the process, but in the material itself.

Back to the beginning. Recycling could help create a sustainable future, but the focus should be on reducing the production of plastic. The “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” slogan emphasizes the priority of reducing over reusing—and reusing over recycling.

However, current priorities and marketing efforts heavily lean towards recycling, even though a drastic improvement in recycling rates may not be the key to achieving a circular economy, especially in the realm of plastic. Additionally, a substantial portion of the population doesn’t effectively recycle, which means we have a big problem. A really big one, actually.

Image | Julia M Cameron via Pexels

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