The Recycling Trap

When you ask any average John/Jane Doe walking down the street what’s the best way to go ‘green’, the chances are they’ll say, ‘Recycle’. Recycling has commonly been perceived as the largest component of sustainability in recent decades, but is it the best way to go green? After all, the sustainability ‘3R’s’ mantra is Reduce, Reuse… and lastly Recycle – and it isn’t just the phonic balance that put it there.

The ‘recycling trap’ can be a trap that many people fall in to. Because they feel good about recycling their consumable waste they feel justified in buying more. Is recycling a good thing? YES! Yes, it is. But is extra consumption justifiable in a sustainable future? No. Not at all.

The first of the 3R’s is Reduce. The best way to create a low carbon footprint and lessen your impact on global warming will always be to stop any unnecessary purchases, and that really does mean any, such as food you have no chance of eating before it goes bad, items used only once that then break or are superfluous (think weddings – when did you actually plan to wear that hat again?) and packaging. We are conditioned into thinking that all words are put in order of ‘good, better, best’, but where sustainability is concerned it’s the other way around. Reducing consumption will always be best. Reusing materials to put give them a new lease of life is better than garbaging them or buying new, and recycling is a good option if you have to absolutely buy them and there is no reducing or reusing option.


Reducing our consumption is where we can make the most difference. Think about one of our most basic needs – food. As much as 30% of the food purchased in North America (That’s about $48 billion – yes billion, it’s not a misprint, worth) ends up in land fill – and that’s not including the 30% that is too ‘ugly’ to sell and is rejected by store buyers before it even hits the shops. Literally more than half of what is eaten is produced and garbaged on a daily basis. ‘But’, I can hear you say, ‘We have a food composting program in our city’, yes, yes we do – but it’s a recycling program that runs trucks and machinery that all consume energy and costs an estimated cool $26 million a year to run. Wouldn’t it just be better to buy only what you can eat, make the most of it and learn to store it for the longer term – or even better, grow your own and have your own composting method?

Another needless component of toxic landfill is packaging. Enough drink pouches from the leading manufacturer are thrown in landfill each year to completely encircle the globe FIVE times, and that’s just one producer. There are many other pouch drink manufacturers around the world. The calculations on how much of landfill is actually packaging vary wildly, but one third seems to be the most common. It’s still a staggering amount! That amount of toxic garbage is hard to comprehend or to put into perspective unless you take a really hard look at what packaging you personally contribute to a landfill.

Take any room in your house. How much packaging did your furniture come in? What was it made of? Where did that packaging go? Was it all necessary? Do the same with the fittings like lights, bulbs etc. Ask the same questions. After that look at the electronics around the room. Then the consumables. Do you need to buy individual drinks in their own bottles? How many USB sticks do you really use, as opposed to lose down the back of the sofa? Did your fruit come in extra, unnecessary wrappings? Was the paper you used trashed? For one room you have probably produced enough packaging to fill the trunk of a large family car and most of it will be plastic based. No wonder New York City has banned several types of plastic packaging!

To reduce your waste in each room always consider mending or repairing first. If you have to buy, consider second hand. Pre-loved often comes with no packaging and saves you money! Buy from shops that have no extra packaging like local farmers markets and thrift stores, and always examine the wrappings and see if there is a greener option. You may even opt to cut out some purchases all together. For instance, manufacturers often ‘pump up the packaging’ if their product is small so that you feel like you’re getting more for your money. Small electronics, cosmetics and chip bags are all well known to have more packaging than product so ask yourself –do you really need them? What other options do you have?

When thinking of reducing, always look at the type of packaging, especially those that have packaging within packaging. Is it really necessary? If it isn’t, make another choice. We control what goes into our landfill, so ultimately we control what toxins leaches out or pollute our air. We are doing it – US. We contribute much of the landfill and cannot sit in sanctimonious judgment of manufacturers who pollute our natural resources, when we do the same! When the combined purchasing power of the consumer demands less packaging, the first ones to react will be the manufacturers – it saves money for them too.


Reusing is the next in the sustainability 3R’s and for good reason. Finding a new use for an item that still has ‘plenty of life in it yet’ is another way to reduce packaging, keep the item out of landfill and conserve precious resources. Virtual community craft boards are much maligned for their kitsch ideas, but they are a mine of information for those who want to reuse, save money – and the planet. There are ideas for reusing almost anything, and to go with the new wave of sustainability, a new name was born – Upcycling. Upcycling is fast becoming the new crafting ‘black’, and for most part, it takes something old and makes it into something better.

By reusing, upcycling or repurposing our unwanted items we are saving energy, resources and landfill as invariably it takes more time than resources, and creates something truly unique.


The last ‘R’ of the sustainability mantra is ‘Recycle’. Recycling is a blanket term and in its purest form means to, “return (material) to a previous stage in a cyclic process”. In essence, recycling means to turn waste back into reusable material. This is a noble cause where the material absolutely has to be consumed, but recycling takes large amounts of energy and transportation which makes it the least favorable green option of the three. If you can reduce or reuse these materials then hands down that is the way forward as that is what really makes a difference. Some people find it easier to look at recycling as a last ditch effort to be green, rather than the first, and in a way they’re right.

On closer inspection it is glaringly obvious why recycling is the ‘poorer’ cousin of reducing and reusing. Because of the amount of energy and resources the process takes to recycle the original material, most recycling programs cost more to run than they generate income. So why do we consider recycling green?

National Geographic looked at the conundrum and declared:

“Consider the true cost of a product over its entire life—from harvesting the raw materials to creating, consuming, and disposing of it—and the scale tips dramatically in recycling’s favor. Every shrink-wrapped toy or tool or medical device we buy bears the stamp of its energy-intensive history: mountains of ore that have been mined (bauxite, say, for aluminum cans), coal plants and oil refineries, railcars, assembly lines. A product’s true cost includes greenhouse gases emitted in its creation as well as use, and pollutants that cause acid rain, smog, and fouled waterways.”

Using recycled as opposed to virgin material not only conserves natural resources, it decreases it’s impact on the planet. The life cycle of recyclable material, the return of scrap material into a useable product offers a tremendous resource saving; it just comes at a higher cost than reducing our consumerism in the first place.

Another aspect of recycling that reduces its green credentials is that recycling indicates that you get ‘like for like’. If you recycle one aluminium can you create one aluminum can, and this is not true. For some schemes the return is extremely high,but not all, and when you come to the term ‘recycled plastic’… It’s a misnomer – the correct term would be ‘downcycled plastic’.

The remaking of plastic into any other material is a complex process and the end result is a new material, but substantially less of it. It does not have an endless recyclable life like some metals. And, when dealing with manufacturing all things plastic, toxins are produced. Despite the explosion in plastics in the last few decades, the industry has been slow to produce recycling models and most are still destined for landfill or incineration whatever incarnation they are in.

Recycling is an important part of our attempt to limit the damage we are doing to the earth, but we have to be sure that recycling does not become the goal of our sustainable efforts. We must take the option of reducing or reusing first in all the purchasing decisions we make.  Recycling is only an option of ‘damage control’, and if we chose it as a first option all we are doing is propagating the production of more ‘stuff’.

The only way that we can improve the quality of the planet we live in is reduce, reuse and lastly … recycle. And it’s not just about improving the quality of the planet. We are fast running out of the resources that sustain life. Clean air, fresh water and sources for warmth are all under threat, as is the way we use them. As consumers we need to realise that the decisions we make at the checkout have an effect on the quality of life we live and the planet we live on – directly and indirectly. We can’t abdicate the responsibility of our carbon footprint to anyone else.

We need to develop a long term vision of our impact on the environment and use it daily. From power bars that switch off all the vampire sucking devices we have to buying nude bananas wrapped in their own beautiful skins we need to realize that what we do on a daily basis does affect the world we live in. It may seem small and inconsequential, but choosing fresh sweetcorn over canned is a good decision, buying the corn from a farmers market is a better decision but growing your own and composting the waste is the best decision. It’s just a question of whether you as an individual want to do it.

As you do a ‘sustainability audit’ of your carbon footprint, take the time to rethink about how you apply the 3R’s to your life. Make ‘reducing’ your byword, ‘reusing’ your best friend and recycling only when necessary. Make sure it’s someone else that falls into the recycling trap.



National Geographic:

David Suzuki Foundation:

Calgary Herald:

City of Calgary:

Post Landfill Org:

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