4Rs Tips for 03.19.2023 – 3 Reasons Recycling Isn’t Working, What We Can Do About It

Why This Blog is Called The 4Rs… Recycling is Broken and We Need to Rethink It.

But First – Don’t Miss Earth Hour Next Saturday, March 25th

Wherever you are, whatever time zone, show the earth some love next Saturday and power down at 8:30 pm during Earth Hour. Follow the link and find tips on how to give back to Mother Earth.

Why 4Rs?

The “4Rs” name for this blog was inspired by a conversation I had with Fresno City Sustainability staff when I lived in that California city. They said they like to look at it as Reduce, Reuse, and Rethink Recycling. I stole the idea because one of the drivers behind why I’m doing this work is because I discovered that Recycling is broken and we need to Rethink it.

After years of being a Recycling and zero-waste volunteer, I was pissed because it didn’t feel like Recycling was making a difference. Then I learn how plastic recycling is mostly a lie and the only real cure for our excessive waste problem is to Reduce and Reuse.

Nowadays, so little effort is put into doing it right this is what a lot of recycling bins look:

Most of this is not recyclable material.

At Author’s Fresno apartment complex in 2021. Photo by Author, Jen Thilman

3 Reasons Why Recycling Hasn’t Worked Well

From the time products and packaging are made to the time we get rid of them, the process of recycling is flawed for three key reasons.

  1. There are no consequences for manufacturers. Companies that make disposable and single-use items aren’t responsible for what happens to them. Though this is starting to change in some countries.
    • They aren’t required to make packaging that can be recycled or cover the cost of disposal.
      • In most communities, taxpayers carry the financial burden of what happens to single-use items after purchase.
    • Actions like Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws are needed to require manufacturers to pay for the waste and environmental damage caused by their practices and products, instead of the consumer paying.
      • Bottle deposits are a form of EPR laws. In communities where deposit laws are done right, recycling rates of beverage containers are 80% or higher.
      • There are countries that have over 90% recycling rate of beverage containers.
    • A number of countries, like Sweden, tax producers of products, including fossil fuels. 
    • Several US states either have, or are proposing EPR rules on the manufacturing of disposables, like in Colorado, Maine, and Oregon
  2. It’s not properly funded so we don’t have the systems in place to recycle all materials, most specifically plastics.
    • According to experts the biggest benefit of recycling is to reduce the mining of materials and fossil fuels from the earth. The emissions and damage to our environment from these activities are big contributors to climate change.
      • In many developed nations, taxes still subsidize the fossil fuel industry, where plastics come from, so virgin materials are cheaper than recycled.
      • Makers of products and packaging have few incentives to use recycled materials.
  3. How We Recycle is Complicated. No matter where you are, you likely don’t know how to correctly recycle. Even in your own home, you may not know the rules of your recycling service.
    • What goes in recycling bins and how we put it there can be confusing.
    • I read the recycling rules for a major waste hauler and noticed they said they accepted 1 – 7 plastics, but later on the same page, they said they only took PETE, mostly milk jugs and water bottles, and HDPE, shampoo and detergent bottles.
      • Honestly, after reading it a few times, I still can’t tell you what plastics they take.
    • In the US, every community and municipality handles recycling differently.
      • Most recyclers are Materials Recovery Facilities (MRFs) that simply sort and sell what we give them.
        • MRFs have different contracts to sell materials, so they take different materials and in different conditions, depending on their contracts and sorting equipment.
          • This determines what you can and cannot put in your recycling bin and it’s not very consistent.
      • What sucks about recycling is that it keeps changing.
        Can someone just build a good system that works so things actually get recycled? Then give us one set of instructions that we can get used to and eventually get right.
        • Since recycling keeps changing, at least in the US it does, I think we’ve given up on figuring out how to do it right, and now most recycle bins have become nothing more than second trash bins.

So if recycling is so broken, but disposable lifestyles are so darn convenient, what can we do to stop this dangerous cycle of single-use everything?

First, we need to get to work on our mindset. Pay attention to your trash and recycle bin. Where can you reduce disposables in your life?

We Need to Reduce and Reuse!

We need to seriously look at the convenience of disposables. Is the damage to our planet a price you want to pay for not having to wash a dish? For not having to cook meals or make lunches?

What Can You And I Do To Help Recycling?

  1. Pay attention to your local proposals to control the use of disposables. Support these laws and the candidates that promote them.
    • We won’t have effective recycling until the people making disposables start making them responsibly so they can be recycled. We need laws for this.
    • Find ways to reduce using disposables in your life. See my post, 3 Ways to Reduce: A Return to Basics.
  2. We can’t change the past and take back all the funding for harmful fossil fuel extraction.
    • We can move forward with our votes and make sure we hire people in government who will work to reverse the funding of industries that damage the earth.
    • As individuals, we must learn what our investments and money in the bank are funding. See the Take Action section for more on how to do this.
  3. Pay Attention! If we want recycling to work we need to take the time to make sure we’re doing it right.
    • Don’t fall back on the old argument, “It doesn’t work anyway, so it doesn’t matter if I do it right.” I’ve heard this way too many times. I’m not sure how this argument is going to solve our recycling problem.

Why It’s Important

I can think of Billions of reasons… wait, no! I can think of Trillions of reasons why reducing disposables and fixing recycling is important.

Our planet can no longer afford these statistics. It has to stop or there won’t be much left of a livable environment. 

Take Action

We as individuals have a lot of power, especially when we all Take Action.

Massive Action = Massive Results

These up coming actions may be easy for you, they may be hard, but I hope you will consider taking at least one of them.

  • On March 21st, Third Act’s National Day of Action is about telling financial institutions that we no longer want our money invested in the fossil fuel industry. It’s a day where we change how we bank and invest so we contribute to a greener future.
    • This can be scary when panicked depositors over-reacting to the bond markets have shuttered the doors of a few banks, but that’s no excuse not to do the research and find a bank that is doing fine and not heavily invested in government bonds. It is no excuse to continue banking with financial institutions that heavily invest in fossil fuels.
    • Since I learned the bank I’ve been with for over ten years is number one on the list, I’ve done the research and am switching to Aspiration for my banking. They offer all the services of my old bank.
    • Learn more about banking alternatives in this article from Sustainable Jungle.
  • Earth Hour is March 25th  This is the easiest action anyone can and should do (spread the word). At 8:30 pm, in whatever time zone you’re in, on March 25th switch off ALL lights and electrical items for ONE HOUR. That’s it.
    • Pull out a flashlight or light a candle and read a book.
    • Have a conversation with your kids or partner.
    • I know people who just go to bed early.
  • April 22nd is Earth Day. Though it’s important that we consider every day Earth Day, this one day out of the year is dedicated to learning how we can do better. Let’s learn how to be better caretakers of our source of life. Spend a little time doing something that will make a difference.
    • Invest in the Planet is the theme for Earth Day this year. They have this Action Toolkit for you to find events and other actions you can take.

It’s about learning how to make every day Earth Day

With Much Gratitude

That’s it for this issue. Remember, I’ve moved to posting bi-weekly so see you in two weeks. 

If you like this post, please forward it to every earth-friendly human you know. If you’ve been forwarded this post, you can subscribe by signing up for my mailing list below.

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Drop me a line anytime if you have questions or comments. I love hearing from you.
Thank you for reading these tips and subscribing. Pat yourself on the back for doing your part. Remember, everything helps.

We’ve got this!

All my best,

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