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The Self-Deceptions of Recycling

Should we abolish recycling?

License: CC0 Public Domain

Broken recycling?

Source: License: CC0 Public Domain

Let me begin by saying that if you’ve come here looking for an excuse to get out of your recycling chores, you may be disappointed! But you might want to make sure your recycling activities don’t lead you to other environmentally destructive choices.

A graduate school colleague once told me to stop printing double-sided because you can always just recycle the paper when you’re done with it (since the paper would go into making more paper, she thought, there was no real cost to printing single sided).

Her argument is wrong for various technical reasons. Recycling does save landfill space and reduces the harvesting of trees for virgin paper. But about a third of printouts will never find their way into the recycling stream. And for those that do, making products from recycled materials is hardly free. It takes a lot of energy to recycle materials, and paper recycling creates significant amounts of pollution—toxic chemicals must be used to remove the inks and toners from the paper. In Wisconsin a paper recycling factory is the second-largest polluter in the state.[1]

Source: "Wysypisko" by Cezary. Licensed under GFDL via Wikimedia Commons -…

Other types of recycling take their toll as well. In chapter 1 of my book Invisible Nature: Healing the Destructive Divide between People and the Environment, I write extensively about the filthy business of recycling electronic waste (your unused laptops, cellphones, car stereos, and so on). These devices contain over a thousand different embedded toxic materials such as beryllium, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic. Removing them from circuit boards and disk drives safely takes a lot of care, but it’s often done by poor people in Asian and African villages using inappropriate low-tech methods (fires and acid baths!) that release these toxicants into the soil, air, and waterways—and into their bodies.

Another problem with recycling is that it degrades most materials, so the more they’re recycled, the less valuable they become. When paper is recycled its fibers becomes shorter and thus less valuable in the paper-making process (shorter fibers = weaker papers). Recycling plastics increases the toxic compounds in them. Recycling insiders have a word for the way materials degrade through recycling: downcycling—the process of making materials increasingly less valuable through successive cycles of recycling. Moreover, because of market forces (the high cost of recycled materials and low costs of raw materials), much of our curbside recycling ends up getting diverted to landfill anyway. So recycling may be less a virtuous circle than a downward spiral.

Bottom line: recycling is no panacea!

It Gets Worse

But hold on—when you start to consider the psychology of recycling, the news gets even worse (but don’t give up just yet because I present some solutions at the end of this article).

When consumers see the recycling symbol, they may think that the product is without environmental costs (just as my colleague in graduate school assumed) or that purchasing is actually an environmentally positive act. So the recycling symbol on the bottle or just the idea that we can recycle stuff when we’re done with it may actually lead us to buy more stuff than we need in the first place. That’s the rebound effect—the idea that a product is more efficient or recyclable may make people buy more and thus cancel out the purported efficiency, perhaps resulting in more overall environmental damage.

A study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology experimentally verified the rebound effect. When the possibility of recycling paper was offered in an experimental setting, people consumed more paper.[2]

How does rebound work? The presence of the recycling option may pre-emptively alleviate any guilt or other negative emotions that might be associated with taking and using the paper. On a related note, one study found that anticipated guilt of not recycling was an important factor in whether people chose to recycle.[3] Worse still, the very idea of recycling may distract us from fundamental changes that are more effective at reducing our environmental impacts. Substantially reducing our environmental damages ultimately means transitioning to a less materials-intensive economy.

It comes as less of a surprise that recycling symbols (that triangle of arrows chasing each other that you see, for instance, on the bottom of plastic bottles) may lead to more consumption when you consider that they were invented by the beverage and container industry (in particular the Container Corporation of America) shortly after the first Earth Day as a way to ward off more serious regulation such as “bottle bills” requiring deposits to be paid when purchasing bottled beverages. Industry uses the idea that you can always recycle to both avoid further regulation and to promote more consumption.

Now what?

by Marcello Casal Jr./Agência Brasil Licensed under CC BY 2.5 br via Wikimedia Commons -
Source: by Marcello Casal Jr./Agência Brasil Licensed under CC BY 2.5 br via Wikimedia Commons -…

Does all of this mean that we must stop recycling? Absolutely not. Recycling is essential to a closed-loop economy. Throwing all of our unused materials into landfills or just letting it dissipate throughout the environment would not be a good choice at all. Using those materials can save energy and resources. People who work to divert materials from landfills for re-use—from citizens putting their bottles at the curbside for pickup to employees of single-stream waste sorting facilities to people scavenging valuable materials from the large landfills of Asia—are doing good work for the environment, reducing the amount of waste we bury. After all, they’re mimicking the processes of nature—all materials are recycled and reused in nature because there is no waste in nature.

But we should be vigilant to ensure that the ability to recycle materials, a problem-laden process, does not influence us to purchase more things we don’t need in the first place. Our consumerist society is wreaking havoc on nature worldwide as resources dwindle and landscapes and seascapes become polluted—think of the trillions of bits of plastic floating in continent-sized batches in our oceans.

A better approach than buying and recycling is to follow the “three Rs”: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. They go in order. First, reduce the amount of stuff you buy or consume (beyond your life essentials). Second, reuse what you have rather than getting more stuff; if you can’t reuse it, get it to someone who can. Third, if the thing or material you acquired truly can’t be reused any longer, get it into the recycling stream. Always remember that the stuff you buy has environmental consequences, even if they are tucked far away in the economy so that you can’t see them.

Governments could promote the three Rs by requiring that the cost of disposing things goes into the prices we pay. So we’d pay more for things that can’t be reused and must be recycled. But we’d pay even more for things that cannot be reused OR recycled and must be added to our ever-growing landfills.

My book: Invisible Nature

Follow me: Twitter or Facebook

My environmental blog: Finding the Human Place in Nature

Read more of my posts: The Green Mind

[1] Margaret Robertson, Sustainability: Principles and Practice, New York: Routledge Earthscan, 2014, p. 275.

[2] Jesse R. Catlin and Yitong Wang, “Recycling gone bad: When the option to recycle increases resource consumption,” Journal of Consumer Psychology 23, 1 (2013) 122–127.

[3] Leila Elgaaied, “Exploring the role of anticipated guilt on pro-environmental behavior—A suggested typology of residents in France based on their recycling patterns.” Journal of Consumer Marketing 29.5 (2012): 369–377.

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