Lots of people find recycling confusing. It’s bad enough that every town has slightly different rules. What one town accepts the next one down the road doesn’t. But what can make recycling really confusing? Lots of what people think they know about it isn’t even true. So let’s debunk some recycling myths.
Some of them either overestimate or underestimate the value of recycling to society. In other cases, people remember the way things used to be, but time changes. So here are some common recycling myths debunked.
Table of Contents
1. Recycling is the best way to reduce waste
Actually, the standard 3 Rs of waste management are reduce, reuse, recycle. In that order.
The best way to reduce waste is not to accept any in the first place. Don’t buy what you don’t need. Take care to reduce the amount of packaging you take home.
Then, when you’re finished with something, try to find a way to reuse it. Or give it to someone else who can use it. Donations to thrift stores (so long as you don’t donate junk) count as reuse.
So prefer recycling to throwing something in the trash, if possible. But reducing and reusing take precedence. Oh, and some people propose 5 Rs of waste reduction or even 7 Rs. Another to remember is rot: compost whatever you can,
2. We recycle everything we can
Alas, recycling rates in the US are distressingly low. About half of what ends up in landfills could have been recycled. And about a quarter of it could have been composted.
We can and must do better than we have been. And that means not only getting people to participate more, but also designing infrastructure, financing, and procedures that work better.
3. You can tell what’s recyclable from the number in the recycling triangle
Once upon a time, but not anymore. Not long ago, recycling programs accepted only plastics numbered 1 or 2. For the last several years, however, they have accepted plastics with any number. That doesn’t mean that they accept just any plastic.
No. 6, for example, is polystyrene, and a lot of polystyrene is made into foam. (Styrofoam™ is one well-known brand.) It breaks into little pieces in the sorting equipment at the materals recovery facility (MRF) and contaminates everything else. You shouldn’t put it out at the curb, but not all polystyrene is foam. If your local recycling program still accepts mixed plastic (numbers 3-7), it will take any no. 6 except foam.
The current instructions for your recycling program very likely specify that you can recycle plastic bottles, jars, and jugs, but not anything other than approved shapes. That is, they don’t mention numbers anymore.
4. Recycling pays for itself
Well, that was the idea at first. Haulers take recyclables to a MRF. The MRF used to pay municipalities by the ton for what they contributed. Since the Chinese crackdown on recycling imports, the MRFs charge a tipping fee. That is, now the municipalities have to pay to dump recycling there.
So recycling isn’t as great as some people think. But here are some recycling myths that represent opposite errors:
5. Recycling takes more energy than making something new
In fact making recycled paper takes only about 60% of the energy of making paper from virgin wood pulp. Each ton of recycled paper represents 64% savings in energy and 58% savings in water. What’s more, it saves 17 trees, which each filter out 60 pounds of air pollutants.
Recycling steel (tin) cans saves at least 60% of the energy needed to make them from virgin materials. Recycling aluminum cans save about 95%. Recycling plastic saves about 33%. Recycling glass saves about 25%.
Each ton of recycled steel also means that it’s not necessary to mine 2,500 pounds of ore, 1,400 pounds of coal, and 120 pounds of limestone.
6. Recyclables just get thrown out
It’s true that MRFs end up sending stuff to landfills, but it’s mostly trash that should have never entered the recycling stream in the first place.
China used to be the only place to sell certain cheap papers and mixed plastic. And that’s the first kind of material they stopped accepting. If a MRF can’t sell what it bales, then its space can be more valuable than its company and it has to go to the landfill.
But think about it: any MRF, whether operated by a commercial company, a non-profit, or a municipality, sorts and bales materials with the intention of selling them. It will do everything it can to sell its output. Landfilling, an absolute last resort, is very rare.
7. Recycling is too inconvenient
People have to put their trash in some kind of container in the house. Then they have to empty that container into the one they have to haul out to the curb. How is separating trash from recyclables in the house and putting them in separate containers any more inconvenient?
We spend too much time chasing conveniences that, when we stop to think about them, aren’t really all that convenient. And they have hidden costs. Do we really need to pay for the cost of convenience?
Some recycling myths don’t come from value judgments about recycling. Perhaps they were even true several years ago. But they’re not anymore.
8. Products from recycled materials are inferior
They certainly used to be. The earliest recycled paper was an off-color and brittle. It jammed copiers and printers. I have too little personal experience with other recycled products to try to describe them, but they weren’t much better.
Now, it’s possible to get copier paper made with 100% recycled content. It looks and acts just like paper made with no recycled content. It’s just as bright white. It has the same feel. It doesn’t deteriorate any faster or jam machines. If you saw stacks of recycled paper and ordinary paper side by side, you couldn’t tell the difference anymore.
Manufacturers of all kinds of recycled products have learned from their early mistakes. They know how to make recycled products that are every bit as good as their other products. In fact, many brands today make only recycled products. And they have a great reputation for their quality.
Recycling isn’t finished until someone buys products made with recycled materials. So if you have been holding back, give it a try!
Hammermill Great White 100% Recycled 20lb Copy Paper, 8.5 x 11, 1 Ream, 500 Sheets,
POLYWOOD AD5030CR Classic Folding Adirondack Chair, made of composite lumber from recycled plastic.
Eco Living Recycled Glass Juice/Water/Wine/Cocktail Glasses 8 oz (Set of 6)
9. What you recycle has to be in good condition
What the MRF bales and sells, some recycling processor shreds and crushes. If a can or bottle is already crushed or cracked, it really doesn’t matter. Paper has to be clean, but it can be torn. (MRFs can’t handle shredded paper, however. It won’t go through the equipment to get where it belongs, so it contaminates nearly everything. You can compost it, though.)
There is only one exception to the recommendation to go ahead and recycle damaged or broken materials. Broken glass presents a hazard to workers. Contact your local program to find if there’s any way you can safely send it.
10. Materials can only be recycled once
In fact, glass and recyclable metals can be recycled indefinitely without becoming degraded. Plastic is usually not turned into the same product that was put out for recycling. Your PET bottles become fabric or other non-container products. Your plastic bags become composite lumber, etc. It’s true that these products are not recyclable. But that shouldn’t influence your recycling decisions.
If you’re wondering if what you want to put out for recycling is really useful, ask yourself only if it’s something your local recycling program accepts. Leave any other questions to the experts.
11. Whatever I do doesn’t matter much
Of all the recycling myths, this is the only one that questions our own worth. There are billions of people in the world and hundreds of millions in the US. So how much difference does it make what one person does?
Not much. But that’s the wrong question. After all, none of us are the only person in the country who does any of what we do.
The better question is, how much difference does it make if millions and millions of people do the same thing I do? If something I do is good and lots of other people do the same thing, it has a good effect. If something I do is bad and lots of other people do the same thing, it has a bad effect.
Recycling is not the most important thing we can do for our community or our world, but it is important. Doing it well is important. And if other people see us doing it well—and constantly improving how we do it—then they might be moved to do it well and keep doing it better, too.
Shop related products:
Seventh Generation Unbleached Paper Towels, 100% Recycled Paper, 6 Count, Pack of 4
Green Toys Train, made from 100% recycled plastic
BPA Free Bowls Made from Recycled Plastic in the USA, Set of 6
7 common recycling myths, debunked / Courtney Linder, Popular Mechanics. November 13, 2019
7 recycling myths debunked / Andrea Davis, Granger Waste Services. January 24, 2020
As a matter of fact: fun tidbits about recycling, energy and climate change / Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection
Recycling myths debunked / Dakota Valley Recycling