Recycling Is Too Difficult and 9 Other Obnoxious Myths

There are many misconceptions about recycling. When you start a recycling program in your house, at your school, or in your workplace, you’re likely to encounter some of these entrenched ideas, so it can help to understand the facts so that you can overcome opposition. Below are some of the common objections to recycling:



Photo courtesy of clurr at Flickr.com.

1. “Recycling is too difficult.”

Recycling is simple and doesn’t take much effort at all. It’s just as easy to throw a recyclable product into a recycling bin as it is to throw it into a trash can. Most cities offer free recycling containers and even curbside pickup. To find a recycling or re-use location near you, you only have to visit this website.

When you recycle, it’s recommended that you wash out your containers to remove food residue. That’s something you’re probably doing already (or that you should be). When you throw out a milk carton or bottle of soda, the residue on the container is what causes your trash to stink. Washing it out not only makes your waste recyclable, but it also reduces how often you have to take out the trash and it prevents insects from feeding on your garbage.

Sorting plastic and glass is just as easy. If you can read, you can read the plastic resin codes on the bottom of each container. You don’t have to know what they mean – just look at your recycling bin to see which items are accepted and which aren’t. If your bin isn’t labeled, a Sharpie marker can fix that quickly too. It also doesn’t take a specialist to tell clear glass apart from tinted glass.

2. “Recycling is bad for the environment because it uses more energy than it saves”

Some people will argue that recycling is harmful because it takes fuel to run recycling trucks, electricity to run conveyor belts, and even more power to melt and re-form recycled materials. While these are all significant environmental costs with substantial carbon footprints, they pale in comparison to the cost of mining, fabricating, and transporting virgin materials. For more information, take a look at Australia’s Life Cycle Assessment of Recycling.

3. “We have plenty of landfill space!”

While it’s true that we have enough landfills for now, these landfills are expected to fill up in our lifetimes. We’ll have to replace these with additional landfills at a huge economic and environmental cost. There are a limited number of places where these landfills can be put without harming property values or damaging critical habitat. When our current landfills reach capacity (in 10-30 years) there’s no assurance that we’ll be able to dig new ones to replace them.

In rural areas, where vast expanses of open land are easily visible, many people believe that there’s no shortage of suitable places for trash. These wide open areas may not have housing developments on them, but that’s because they’re farmland. We can’t farm on top of landfills! Other wild areas and nature preserves serve equally critical functions. They serves as watersheds and wildlife habitat for migrating game species – vital functions that would cost billions of dollars to replace or relocate.

If we were to position landfills out in the countryside, they would get progressively further and further away from the cities were most trash is produced. When garbage travels further to reach its destination, transportation costs rise sharply. That means more greenhouse gasses will be produced and more oil will be consumed if we don’t recycle. If you’re facing someone who’s really selfish about not wanting to recycle, point out that their choices will cause the price of gasoline to go up (because garbage trucks will consume more and push up demand)!

Recycling is also about more than finding space to bury our problems and forget about them. Recycling is about conserving energy and water by re-using valuable materials. It’s about curbing the greenhouse effect and making our communities cleaner places to live.


4. “It doesn’t matter what I put in my recycling bin, because it all ends up in the same place.”

Recycling bin!

Photo found on Flickr.com courtesy of Brandi666.

Thousands of people are employed and hundreds of millions of dollars invested to ensure that the majority of recyclables in our recycling bins get recycled.

Each year, U.S. factories melt down approximately 666,000 tons of aluminum from 45 billion recycled cans. They want ’em so bad they even import 5 billion cans—not to chalk up environmental points but to save big bucks: Recycled aluminum requires only one-seventh as much energy to process as virgin material. In addition, about 420,000 tons of plastic bottles, 2.4 million tons of glass containers, and more than 50 million tons of wastepaper are collected and made into new products.

5. “Everyone tosses their trash in the recycle bin – they already have to sort it out, so what does a little bit more hurt? “

When people put household rubbish in their recycling bins, recyclers have to hand sort this rubbish from the re-usable material and send it to the landfill. This hand sorting process is very labor intensive and expensive – after all, how much would someone have to pay you to sort through other people’s garbage? If “everyone” threw trash in the bins, it would make recycling unprofitable.

For example, if a small piece of oven proof glass or just 15 grams of ceramics gets mixed with glass, up to one tonne of glass can get sent to landfill. Why? Because oven proof glass and ceramics melt at a different temperature to normal glass and contaminate the glass-making process. Glass recyclers can reject recycling loads that contain too many of these contaminants.

Throwing trash in the recycling bin isn’t the normal thing – it’s what jerks do. Just a few rude and inconsiderate people can undo the work of many other people. Abitibi estimates that less than 1% of all waste in their Paper Retriever bins is misplaced trash. But sorting out that trash costs 80% (or more) of the total recycling budget!

Everything is not always what it appears to be. For example, ‘split’ garbage trucks are divided on the inside to keep materials separated, but to the casual observer it may look like recyclables and trash are being thrown together. When split trucks are unavailable, some garbage services use the same trucks to pick up trash and recyclables. They make 2 separate runs, but it can look like all of the refuse is being combined. Just remember: it’s always important to sort recyclables, and it’s in the economic interest of recyclers to respect your hard work.

6. “My trash will rot anyway. There’s no reason to recycle because it will all disappear in the landfill.”

This is just wrong. Rubbish lasts for thousands of years – in fact, archaeologists routinely study the trash of ancient civilizations to learn about their society. Many of the things we throw away, such as plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and magazines would take centuries to break down, even if they were left out in the open. In landfills, where there’s very little oxygen or sunlight, even food scraps can fossilize instead of breaking down.

When biodegradable waste (such as paper, food leftovers, and lawn clippings) breaks down at the landfill, it releases carbon dioxide and methane. Only about 55% of this methane gas is captured for power generation, while the remaining amount is released into the atmosphere. Methane smells terrible and it can cause breathing problems such as asthma and respiratory arrest. More importantly, it’s a potent greenhouse gas that causes even more intense warming than carbon dioxide!

7. “Recycling is a waste of time for people with professional skills”

Some people argue that Doctors, Lawyers, and other skilled professionals are wasting their skills by sorting their trash instead of helping people. This is another way of saying “I’m rich, so I shouldn’t have to do that.” In general, this is a myth because it assumes that professionals are using all of their time to serve society. Also, sorting recyclables isn’t a major burden. These professionals waste more time pumping their own gas, balancing their own checkbooks, or cooking than they would spend recycling.

Recycling is also a civic duty. Think of it like Jury Duty; a person’s job isn’t grounds for exemption. This is because civil society is built on the obligations we share with our neighbors. Recycling is a great way to build community spirit, and it also allows us to interact with people outside our normal circle of friends and acquaintances.

8. “Recycling programs distract from other, more important community efforts.”

It’s true that many towns face a wide range of problems, including unemployment and crime. Allocating resources to deal with all of these problems is tricky and open to debate. Yet, there are diminishing results from throwing resources at any single issue. Curbside recycling programs are an inexpensive way to address the problem of garbage and blight – they offer a high return on investment compared to other community programs. Recycling can even turn a profit and fund other community efforts!

9. “When you recycle, all of the trash gets sent overseas, where it ends up polluting other countries.”

Recycling is a huge industry in the United States, and many companies are eager to buy recycled aluminum, iron, glass, or plastic to make new products. For example, the scrap metal industry alone employs 50,000 people. Yet there are many non-US companies that are also eager to buy recycled material because it can be cheaper than virgin material. For example, China imports huge amounts of wastepaper from the US to meet rising demand for newspapers, paper towels, and other consumer products:

In the last ten years China’s wastepaper imports increased by more than 500 percent — from 3.1 million tonnes in 1996 to 19.6 million tonnes in 2006 — with most of that growth occurring between 2002 and 2006…

There are certainly some problems with this international traffic in trash. E-waste and plastic exports can cause environmental problems and health issues if they are not handled properly. But those can be managed by dealing only with reputable recycling companies.

The BBC has an excellent article that tracks what happens to the recyclables of 3 average people:

Much of the recycling appeared to be conducted in the UK, with many of the finished products also being used within the UK, although some also ended up abroad… On the whole, the recycling appeared to travel some miles – but not thousands, more like hundreds or even tens.

10. “If I sort my recycling, that’s all I have to do to help the environment.”

Recycling is a good start, but there are many other things you can do! Helping the environment can be a full-time job, or just a part-time hobby. It’s all up to you!

  • Save money by buying less stuff!
  • Reduce and reuse waste.
  • Shop for items with minimal packaging.
  • Choose quality products that last longer than cheap disposable junk.
  • Use a compost heap to process your green waste.
  • Or try one of these 21 other Practical ways to help the environment
  • These aren’t the only myths that recycling has to overcome. Here’s another list of 10 myths that hold people back from helping the environment.

    And here’s a counterpoint that points out some of the shortcomings of recycling: 8 Great Myths about waste disposal.

    Bear in mind that there is some truth behind all of these myths. In order to get the best results, it’s important to learn the ins and outs of your local recycling program. Also, if your town program doesn’t recycle something (such as brown glass), that isn’t the end of your options. Local businesses or even neighboring towns may happily accept that waste – you just have to ask around.

    As LeRoy Harvey wrote:

    Please don’t believe that any of this is true. It’s not. It depends. Ask your own questions and make your own decisions. Live consciously. Become a learner.

    Keep your eyes open and talk with your neighbors for more waste reduction tips. Get involved in local events and help set your town’s recycling policies!