Recycling is the process of converting waste materials into new products. Today, the 17th of May, we celebrate International Recycling Day. If you think that recycling all your plastics was the best thing you could do for the environment, then you are wrong.
It’s understandable that you would believe this, so do many others! Even throughout my degree on Environmental Sciences my lecturers never taught me to think about recycling from a critical perspective.
Why is recycling plastic not good for the oceans?
Plastic is different to other materials we recycle (i.e: paper/ aluminum). The difference is that a piece of paper can be recycled into another piece of paper and same with an aluminum can. However, it is different when we talk about plastics: a plastic bottle is not likely to be recycled into another plastic bottle. This means, plastics can’t be recovered into the same products, but different ones, often of lesser quality.
A plastic bottle, when recycled, would only be recycled once. At its best it could turn into clothes, woodgrain or even pillows. These items, more often than not, are disposed of at the end of their use. This means that the last step for this plastic bottle would be the one we were trying to prevent in the first place: going into landfill.
The last measure you should resort to in order to stop plastic pollution is recycling. In this sense, considering recycling as the answer is to start with the final step. Surely you have heard of the so-called 3 Rs of waste “Reduce, Reuse and Recycle” – not many people know this, but reduce > reuse > recycle is the order which you should follow to combat waste. If we want to reduce the entry of plastic into the ocean, then the most sustainable strategy is adding one more R (Refuse) right at the beginning:
Marine plastic pollution can’t be answered through recycling because it is not tackling the root-cause of the problem. The problem is the continuous influx of plastic by the production of manufacturers, demand of consumers, and later by the output of waste management centres.
The genuine solution here is in changing the materials we consume for more sustainable ones, swapping from fossil fuels and taking a step back from from our throw-away – or recycle away culture. It´s important to know that both throwing away and recycling, in the instance of plastic, should always be the last option.