Sustainable Consumerism: Does Recycling Really Work?

Many people today know that recycling benefits the planet by reducing waste and slowing resource depletion. But once we put a can or bottle into a recycle bin, where does it go? The average consumer expects and assumes that when they choose to recycle used materials like plastics, glass, and paper, they go directly to a recycling plant for conversion into new products. This unfortunately may not always be the case.

When Recycling Does Work 

Recycling has been shown to save companies money on waste management, which is a great motivator for businesses that not only should be recycling, but want to ultimately lower costs for the business. Companies that use recycled materials are also attractive to a growing number of consumers who look specifically for products that are made from recycled materials, or utilize sustainable production practices. Aluminum cans and glass bottles are the easiest to recycle, both for reprocessing and also for the consumer. A single aluminum can take under 60 days to go from the recycling bin to the store shelf as a new product, which in turn saves energy, reduces landfills, and increases natural resource preservation. Consumers also have plenty of options for returning bottles and cans, which in some cases results in the return of a $.05 deposit. Now that's incentive!

When Recycling Doesn't Work

Many people will remember a time not long ago when they had to separate bottles, cans, paper, and plastic into separate bins for recycling. Plastic products labeled with a number and the green arrow symbol for recycling could be sorted by type, and glass was put into different bins for colored and clear. This added effort may have been discouraging consumers from recycling, and in response we have recently been allowed to recycle materials with minimal sorting. One of the problems with this system is that what may seem to be recyclable in fact is not, as is the case with products like pizza boxes and coffee cups. Certain plastics like hard PVC, or the crinkly malleable plastic in grocery bags are hard to recycle, so upon arriving at the recycling station, they get sorted right back into the trash. According to, “the EPA estimates that 75 percent of solid waste is recyclable, [yet] only about 30 percent is actually recycled.” In addition, less than 1% of all the discarded plastic materials get recycled at all!

Alternatives to Recycling

It seems obvious that there are better options out there than recycling waste, such as reuse and an overall reduction in product consumption. But what about the way we make products, and their own material life-cycle? A new way of thinking about product manufacturing has surfaced called Biomimicry, which uses the idea that nature is the most efficient and sustainable producer on the planet. Biomimicry is inspiring innovation in products and resource consumption all over the world. For example, how would nature produce, use, and dispose of plastic bags? One company called Biomimicry 3.8 has come up with thousands of ideas that mimic nature, such as copying the design of a clam-shell to replace nails, bolts, and screws for building materials. It's this kind of innovation that will hopefully outpace recycling as one of the most successful solutions to reducing waste, creating a more sustainable planet for us all. 

Interested? Check out the EPA website to learn about what can be recycled in your area, and Bimomimicry 3.8 to get inspired.