The truth is, simply recycling plastic may not be our best bet for the planet.
We hear about recycling as one of the most straightforward ways of playing our part for the environment – “If you sort your waste and recycle properly, then you’ve done your part for the planet.”
And, not to mention, dropping recyclables into a bin they belong to probably makes you feel good too. (Unless you wishcycle. In which case then you’re probably not doing it right!).
Despite this, we have learned the astonishing fact that only 9% of plastics get recycled. This begs the question, then – is recycling all that it claims to be for the good of our planet?
In this article, we delve into the history of recycling as well as how recycling is not the only solution to the global plastic problem.
How recycling came to be
Recycling has been cited to date back to 1031 with the existence of paper recycling in Japan, but modern recycling as we know it today most likely began in the 1970s when the environmental movement began in the United States.
In the 1970s, concern toward the consequences of single-use plastics grew.
Typically, the purpose of recycling was to recover materials to be used again to manufacture usable materials. However, in a Time article, Olivia B. Waxman described that driving factors for recycling have changed.
Instead of recycling to get the most out of materials, Americans began recycling to address the massive waste produced during the second half of the 20th century.
Corporates and businesses joined in on the effort to urge the public to be more mindful about accumulating trash in our environment.
For a timeline of the history of recycling, check out this site!
Individual action vs Corporations
Waste, which was politely termed as ‘litter’, became one of the central pivots for corporations and businesses in the United States to call for individual action and behavioral changes.
In 1953, the American Can Co. and the Owens-Illinois Glass Co., who were later joined by leading beverage and packaging companies such as Coca-Cola and the Dixie Cup Co., formed Keep America Beautiful (KAB), a nonprofit aimed at reducing litter in America, which exists to this day.
On the surface level of things, Keep America Beautiful campaigns for anti-litter and keeping the environment clean, but critics have pointed out that their message seemed to divert the responsibility of reducing litter to the individuals instead of the large corporations.
This is due in part to KAB’s infamous ad released in the 1970s, The Crying Indian, that became an unforgettable symbol to motivate behavioural change.
Interesting enough, it really seemed as though the campaigns existed to place emphasis on the consumer’s role to cultivate better environmental habits (instead of the corporations themselves), and in a way, justify the production of more plastic.
We can’t recycle our way out of our plastic problems
And so, the truth about plastic recycling is that it is not the only solution to our plastic problem. We are not recycling our items very well, either.
In Scientific American, Matt Wilkins describes that recycling “distracts from the real problem”, which is single-use plastic.
In a way, you could technically say that recycling is akin to a band-aid slapped onto a growing wound, hoping that it will somehow fix the problem.
On some levels, we agree that recycling will not holistically solve the plastic pollution problem. This is because of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced, 6.3 billon metric tons have become plastic waste.
From that, only 9% has been recycled while the majority (79%) is piling up in landfills, our environment and eventually leaking into our oceans.
91% of plastic is not recycled. That’s a real problem.
More emphasis should be placed on phasing out single-use plastics in a vast majority of items that we use.
However, until feasible action is implemented, recycling still holds power to change our course for the sustainability of the planet in terms of the accumulation of trash.
For one, recycling saves energy and resources and it keeps more trash out of our landfills. One day, we may very well run out of space to throw trash away – recycling slows down the filling of landfills.
In a separate article here, we explain why you should still recycle even though it is challenging.
As a social enterprise advocating for recycling efforts for sustainability, it may seem contradictory of us to agree with how recycling is not the best solution.
One thing we do see, though, is that until more action is implemented to nip plastic production right at the source, we’ll be happy doing our part for the planet through Beyond Bins.
For us, Beyond Bins is how we choose to respond to the plastic waste crisis.
Creating things has been our forte, even from the very beginning; making things from plastic waste, taking them away from landfills the best way we can is our way of doing our part for the planet.
We help communities along the way, too, with an alternative source of income from production itself.
More important is the opportunity for these communities to be exposed to innovative ways to handle waste and to see waste differently.
If you’d like to drop us a message about Beyond Bins, the plastic waste crisis, our mentality about waste, or anything, really – don’t be afraid to reach out.