Why Recycling Doesn't Work - The Captain Planet Myth

Posted by Steve Reble on

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.

Newer Post →


  • I agree that the solutions lie with the producers that keep churning this stuff out! The consumer as well, to a degree, but we need the political will to gold the retail giants’ feet to the fire about this. Also consider the CARBON FOOTPRINT of recycling. It is a horrible sink. Totally inefficient unless the goal is to keep burning oil, which surely it is. The momentum behind recycling is to help cities, states, and counties avoid the hassle of building and running landfills. Its not so much about saving the planet etc. Recycling is pretty bad for the planet, great for the oil burners. Disingenuous to only consider the dollar costs without including the oil burning costs.

    Bonnie on
  • I agree with Jarat!! Let’s not give up, let’s readjust back to our old ways of shopping and Storing foods. I’m reusing peanut butter and sauce jars to bring lunch to work.

    Mary F on
  • You failed to mention that biodegradable, plant based plastics are a thing. There’s a wide range of sustainable plastic options for pretty much anything one could fathom. Aaand like Najat’s comment said, individuals don’t have much power. We could collectively harass the corporations and try to force changes, but it’s likely that we would be crushed. Lol

    Kaedin Baen on
  • Hooray, Najat! Everything you describe would do a lot of good here. We do have meat paper, or something like it, that comes when you buy meat from the butcher, but not when you buy prepackaged cuts of poultry, beef, pork, or lamb. It is prepackaged for the shopper’s convenience, not for taking care of the planet.

    Mary Townsager on
  • Great article — and it just cements my resolveto remove as much plastic from my life as I can, and hopefully convince others to do the same. I am an avid recycler & yes, occasional dumpster diver — and I absolutely reUSE what I can … until it dies. But I definitely agree that reFUSE is the better choice to make. We have to change our habits, stop making “easy” choices, & stop buying crap we don’t really need.

    Susan on
  • I have eliminated most plastic except for packaging. I wanted to start buying recycled and or toilet paper from sustainable bamboo. But the come wrapped in plastic. Whereas Scott tissue comes wrapped in paper. My grocery store is getting better at not wrapping up all the veggies but it is still hard.

    Barbara on
  • Amen to what @Najat said! … I go to uncommon and occasionally socially awkward lengths to avoid and minimize my consumption of disposable, single-use containers and packaging of all kinds… yet every few weeks my recycling bin is full of (well-washed) glass bottles and plastic food containers/bags, because there’s simply no other available way to buy a number of the food items that I consider valuable parts of my diet! … and further, I realize that this volume of glass and plastic dwarfs what I’m saving by carrying steel bottles and titanium cutlery with me everywhere I go…

    Zach on
  • Sorry, auto correct… Najat

    Carolyn on
  • I agree with Namath’s!

    Carolyn on
  • I am looking for a recyclable dog poop bag that is biodegradable. Any suggestions?

    Nancy Glassberg on

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Leave a comment