Recyclable Does Not Equal Recycled

In theory everything is recyclable. I could recycle a building, an airplane, a DVD, a camera…or even my tooth brush. For something recyclable to actually be recycled someone needs to take that something and want to turn it into something new. That is exactly where the problem lies with the recycling concept.

In 1988-89 I was one of those university students espousing the need for recycling. However I imagined that the people who were making all the stuff that was filling up the landfills would buy back all the stuff they made and turn it back into new stuff. So when recycling started I thought for many years that was exactly what was happening. Then came the nice little triangle under all sorts of containers and I thought “Wow we were really successful! Power to the people.”

Then a few years ago, let’s say five, I realized that we were not as smart as we thought we were when everyone lobbied for recycling on behalf of our planet. We never insisted that the companies who make the stuff ending up in the landfills commit to taking back the waste they created. Instead what happened was it became societies waste to take care of. In some places the plastic industry makes a contribution to cover a small portion of the costs of running recycling depots, in other places, recycling depots receiving financing through levy systems. In large part, the recycling depots depend heavily on financing their operation through our taxes. In very few places do manufacturers who make plastic, glass, Styrofoam, buy back what they put out in the market. All the waste that comes from the profits their companies generate becomes society’s problem.

Recycling depots are like purgatory or if you prefer a Dr. Seuss reference: ‘the waiting room’.

We diligently pick out our approved ‘recyclables’ in our little communities to ensure we minimize what we send out to a landfill. We carefully put out the blue boxes (or other colours) with a feeling of content that we are joining others in doing our part to save the planet. A wonderful truck comes along and takes our stuff to the local recycling heaven where we believe angels are hard at work magically turning everything we sent in our blue boxes into something wonderful and new right in our communities. Maybe a fairy godmother helps out once in a while and waves a magical wand with a Bibbidi-Bobbidi-Boo and jovially exclaims: ‘Food container thou shalt become aluminum foil! Bottles thou shalt become carpets. “

(O.K. I know I am mixing up Cinderella, religion and Dr. Seuss. I aiming for mass appeal- kids, gen-x, elderly.)

Now I like most people have a decent brain. It is sometimes over-loaded but I like to think I am pretty smart. One day I woke up and realized “Hmm…I don’t think that the stuff in the blue box goes to recycling heaven in my own community.” It was like waking up and doubting the existence of God. The mere thought that the stuff I carefully put in my blue box was not re-appearing on the grocery shelves in my neighbourhood grocery store with the fancy triangles, was earth shattering.

With a bit of research I soon discovered: something is only recycled if someone somewhere in the world is willing to buy that product, and tons of it, from recycling depots and then turn it into something else. The next sad truth: that ‘someone’, when they found them, was rarely found in the same community as where the recycling took place. Sometimes they were not even in the same country!


You need to be a savvy shopper when a manufacturer claims you should buy their product because it is ‘recyclable’ or made from ‘recycled materials’. Before you buy it give the manufacturer a call and ask where it is recycled; how much of that exact same product they buy back and if they don’t then who and where is buying it back to turn into something; and lastly how much recycled content is in their product. Many products with ‘recycled content’ have less than 20% that is recycled materials. Their product continues to depend heavily on the continued extraction of petroleum to obtain virgin supplies to make the plastic.

Recycling is a great solution. I was all behind it. In theory it can minimize what we send to a landfill. However after twenty years of practice doing the recycling thing, it is about time we re-evaluate just how successful the plastic industry has been at reducing their waste in relation to the profits they have made at the expense of our planet. The plastic and polystyrene industry has more than fifty years of profiting on this planet and close to twenty of those to clean up its mess through recycling efforts supported in many communities through public taxes.

Now plastics are being made and exported in communities around the world where there is no luxury of a tax base to buffer the expense of a recycling depot. It is no longer acceptable to say that littering is the problem. The problem is in what we make, how we make it, what it is made from and what we can do locally when we are done with our stuff. This emperor needs some new clothes.