Why Recycling Doesn't Work - The Captain Planet Myth

If you grew up in the 80s and 90s, you know that we were taught to believe that each person can single-handedly save the environment by recycling. It was no mistake that kid’s shows like Captain Planet and The Smoggies were handing the heavy weight of saving the world to the next generation. Through these shows and school programs, Generation Y and older Millenials grew up with a focus on Reduce Reuse Recycle being the clear path to saving the planet. But along the way, someone failed the mention that while Recycling might be the easiest ‘R’ to incorporate into our lives, it’s actually the least impactful.

What Happens To Our Recycling?

Your household, like many others, probably takes the time to separate out your bottles, cans and paper goods into the recycling box. But after you rush to get it to the curb on time, where does it actually go? Recycling brings to mind images of glass being smashed, melted and turned into new glass. Stock footage we’ve been exposed to since this infamous episode of Sesame Street first explained recycling to us as children. And while that does happen to some lucky bottles, would it shock you to know that only 7-10% of the items you throw in the recycling (especially plastics) actually end up there? “And the rest?” you ask. The landfill.

How We’re Recycling Wrong

Are you the person that scrubs out the greasy film from the cream cheese container before throwing it in the recycling or the person who tosses it in with a scoop too small for a sandwich still left inside? Do you check your plastics for a recycling logo before tossing it in or do you assume all plastics are recyclable? It’s not uncommon for up to 25% percent of what goes into the recycling bin to be either contaminated or not recyclable in the first place. The cost of sorting out non-recyclables and cleaning contaminated items is simply too high, so, unfortunately, entire batches of recycling wind up heading to the landfill instead. If you’re a perfectionist when it comes to cleaning your recycling, keep up the good work!

But Wait, Doesn’t China Buy Our Recycling?

Not anymore. After decades of purchasing a huge portion of the West’s plastic recyclables, China has put an end to being the country that cleans up our mess. And they’ve got some serious messes of their own to consider. China announced the National Sword policy, banning plastic waste from being imported, in July 2017, and the ban officially began January 1, 2018. This came following the release of a documentary called Plastic China, which shed some pretty uncomfortable light on the hazardous implications of the prevalent ‘unofficial’ recycling centers in China. Coincidence? Probably not. Now China is making moves to shut down informal recycling plants and build better, safer and more efficient recycling systems for their own growing waste problem. So, our recycling is back to being our own costly problem.

Was Captain Planet Wrong?

Yes and no. Recycling is a lot better for our conscience than it is for our planet or the economy. We recycle because we’re told to recycle. That it’s the right thing to do. But if it’s all a performance and those bottles don’t actually get melted down and turned into new bottles, then what’s the answer?

Should you take all the recyclables in your home and throw them in the trash can? Absolutely not! But should you make an effort to focus on ways to reduce, reuse and altogether refuse to use plastic?  You bet! When the Planeteers would join their rings to summon Captain Planet, he would remind us all that “The power is yours!”. And while that may have ended up being a little more complicated than tossing a greasy pizza box in the recycling and calling yourself an environmentalist, the message remains the same. We each hold the power to make an environmental impact. And if not with our recyclables, then with our wallets and our voices, our votes, and our habits.

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  • Very good point, Najat! In the 70’s I remember not a lot of plastic and even then my family would reuse the plastic containers. For as long as we could. Freezing veggies went into plastic and those containers were reused again and again. During the 80’s it was as if recycling and reusing were a waste of time and so many families I met just put it in the trash. When you told them ‘there is no away’ they would laugh at you. Today in America, it is a hard fought battle to get people to understand the need to not create trash. Even with all the evidence of the destruction plastic waste creates.

    Barbara on
  • I painted at a furniture factory for a year and saw dumpsters of plastic wraps and plastic covers of all kinds left over from shipping thrown DAILEY into an industrial size dumpster. This was only ONE factory. I cannot fathom what is being produced by plastic factories the world over. Even my big and famous PCC food coop in Seattle was selling eggs in a plastic container. Shameful!

    carrie on
  • Where do we start? I bought a bunch of your stuff and have given it to my daughter. I can buy more of your stuff, but how do we buy stuff that isn’t in plastic bottles?

    Mary Horn on
  • I agree that reducing use is better than recycling but we need both. I had an experience similar to Najat. When I immigrated from India in the 1970s I remember being amazed by the waste—for example, paper milk cartons being thrown away in the trash in my school cafeteria. While I grew up learning to reuse just about everything and used reusable vegetable bags in the early 1990s, over the years I admit I have become lazy as I gradually adopted a Western lifestyle of convenience. I agree that Corporate Social Responsibility has to include reducing waste, using less packaging, and building items to last. Government mandates to ban plastic bags, straws etc. are also very effective. I’m disappointed that in India plastic items have become ubiquitous and reusing and recycling are no longer vogue as the country as a whole has adopted the US example.

    Rupa on
  • I agree with Najat….CBC,s Marketplace in the recent past, had a program devoted to the subject of stores/businesses not stocking anything wrapped in plastic/containers.
    The UK has such a store that was featured. Apparently there,s one in Toronto too.
    If businesses, large and small stopped purchasing their stock from suppliers who only use plastic, it might discourage all that plastic choking our planet and creatures (us too)

    Cecilia BRown on
  • I agree with the above comment- companies need to go back to glass containers and paper wrapping, and everyone should bring their own shopping bags. Companies that manufacture plastic packaging need to transition to glass. I know this won’t be easy, but there’s no other way.

    Sheila Ondrachek on
  • Yes, Najat. I agree. I also remember a time when plastic was quite rare in Germany and meat was wrapped in special paper.

    Hedi Devine on
  • I agree with Najat. I’m trying very hard to reduce trash and eliminate plastics. I’ve eliminated my single use bags and water bottles almost entirely. However try to buy bulk of nearly anything in the US. Nearly impossible. Solid bars of dish soap vs. Liquid in a plastic bottle, almost 3-4 times the cost so you need to be able to afford the switch as well. Make your own products. Ingredients come in plastic often and it’s a bit complicated to make things that work as well as pre made products. We need companies and government to get involved in an Apollo like project for this to work as the average person will not even make the effort I am and I’m very concerned about these issues!

    Greg Thuotte on
  • Please ask shops to use reusable produce bsfs, ban plastic and polystyrene

    Christine McDonald on
  • So what can we do with the plastics we have right now? Is there any one who can tell us what to do with the plastics . Burning them may emit poisonous gas . Are we just doomed humans who killed Gods creation? So help us God

    Vangie Jefferson on

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