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Jaclyn McCosker

Why Reducing Is Better Than Recycling

Why Reducing Is Better Than Recycling

Recycling has long been touted as the eco solution to our obsessive capitalist consumer society, where our purchasing power (what we own) allows us to buy ourselves a sense of identity. What we eat, how we dress, how we decorate our homes.

We spend and spend and spend and rarely purchase products with the understanding of where they come from or where they'll go after we're finished with them.

Recycling gives us the peace of mind that no matter how raucously we spend and dispose of our useless packaging and products, we aren't being entirely wasteful as the materials may be reused for someone else, and therefore it isn't really waste.

But there are a few reasons why recycling should no longer be seen as the eco option.

Recycling gives us a false sense of doing our duty

Recycling allows us to dismiss our consumer habits because we have a contingency plan. No matter how wasteful or pointless our spending, at least we can recycle it right? This lessens the need to pay attention to what we're buying and opens us up to a world of bad purchasing habits. Recycling does not make us focus on the primary problem - overconsumption!

The products you buy are still using new resources

Yes, buying toilet paper recycled from old paper is great (and you should be doing this!). But that doesn't mean buying new paper and recycling it is a good thing! Everything you buy is not only made up of the materials in the final product itself, but also all the fossil fuels and water used in production, packaging and transport to its final destination. Throwing your rubbish in the recycling bin will not bring back these resources you have used to get the item to you in the first place.

Learn about the damage of producing too much stuff in this 20 minute video with almost 4 million views:

Recycling uses resources, too

Recycling isn't necessarily a green option. A lot of water is used to clean and process materials into new products. If the materials go to industries they use dirty energy and water to turn them into new products like recycled toilet paper. Is less energy used because they didn't need to make the original material twice? Yes. Is it an actual solution to the excess usage of energy and water? Not necessarily.

A lesser evil can still be an evil.

Just because you put it in the recycling bin doesn't mean it's recycled

Just because something can theoretically be recycled doesn't mean your council has the means or interest to do so. The council recycling bin does not magically result in the product going to use, and it's not the only source of recycling we should rely on. Councils recycle materials and sell them onto for-profit businesses. This means that what gets repurposed as a recycled material is profit-driven and not influenced by policy, need assessment or anything else practical you might wish it was driven by.

Some areas of the world recycle all plastics, some only recycle particular hard plastics. Some recycle glass, some don't. What your local council recycles is completely at the discretion of the council, and you generally don't know where the recycled materials end up or what they're being used for. There's just no guarantee anything you put in the recycling bin goes to use!

Much of what can or would be recycled is thrown out if the market price is too low, a batch of material is contaminated by food or lower quality materials (e.g. soft plastics), or some other such issue arises. Those who are doing our recycling are not necessarily providing ethical, eco products. They are just selling to the highest bidder and anything could happen once the material leaves the recycling plant.

The issue of what is and isn't recycled is so complex, I opted out of trying to break it down because what's true in Melbourne may not be true even in my neighbouring suburb. Instead, I've included some links at the bottom of this post to help you figure it out yourself.

Materials are downcycled until they ultimately become trash

Those products that are recycled are what is sometimes referred to as "downcycled". This means a good quality material is crushed or melted down then rebuilt into a new, lower quality version of the material. Primary resources are used all throughout this process.

The process may occur multiple times, extending the life of the original material but eventually the material will be downcycled to the point that it doesn't serve any further purpose and ultimately does become landfill waste.

Is it the better option to reduce landfill? Abso-frickin-lutely.

Does it prevent the item you bought from ending up there? Absolutely not. It just took a little while longer.

The question then arises, if recycling isn't the best option then what should we be doing? You should continue to recycle, for one. But you should be aiming to reduce the amount you are recycling by limiting your consumption of disposable materials. If you're not planning on keeping it for a while, why spend money on it? Consider impact over convenience. Instead of relying on recycling to cover up your consumption, focus on bringing less trash into your life. This is the only way to truly reduce your environmental footprint and avoid the loss of non-renewable resources.

Tips to help:

  • Research where to recycle odd products. (For those in Melbourne:
  • Learn about what you can and cannot recycle in your council region using the free Recyclesmart and SustainMe apps.
  • Use your own produce and shopping bags.
  • Request minimal packaging when ordering delivery or shopping online.
  • Buy as much as you can off your grocery list from bulk sections in your own packaging.
  • Buy items such as fruit and vegetables loosely.
  • Use tupperware to buy takeaway items and reuse disposable takeaway containers until they fall apart.
  • DIY beauty products from kitchen supplies.
  • Make your own food from scratch, like plant milks or tomato sauces.
  • Buy items in large quantities for a smaller waste to product ratio.
  • Refuse individually wrapped items and buy them loosely packed inside a larger container.
  • Sell, donate or trade your lightly used items. There are plenty of Facebook groups for these purposes.
  • Say no to disposable products like coffee cups, straws, napkins, receipts, business cards, etc.
  • Recycle your soft plastics in store at Coles or by posting to RedCycle.
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