Why Is Recycling So Hard? You May Think It’s Complicated, But Nothing Could Be Easier

Do you have nightmares that the planet is going to end up like the wasteland of Wall-E, with mountains of waste and an arid desert landscape uninhabitable by humans? Climate change is continuing its trudge onwards, and unless we take action soon, that Wall-E style wasteland is going to look like a trip to Palm Springs. Now for the bad news: according to a 2017 study, millennials are pretty apathetic about recycling — only 34 percent recycle paper or cans, compared with 46 percent of the general population, even though over 70 percent are concerned about climate change. What gives? Why do we think recycling is so hard to do?

There are many myths about going green and recycling, and while it's clear that the process isn't perfect — some waste can't be recycled using current methods, and sorting things can take ages because people so often put waste in the wrong bins — the fundamental worthiness of recycling materials themselves is still the crux of the environmental movement, along with reducing and reusing, of course. If you want to call yourself green, you need to think about lowering your waste consumption and making sure that what you produce is able to be reused efficiently and usefully. And that means tackling the too-hard misconceptions about recycling. Get your blue bins out. Let's do this.

Myth 1: "Plastic Is Basically Unrecyclable, So What's The Point"

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At some point most people will have heard this idea: that while plastic can come with a recyclable symbol, actually making it recyclable is a huge undertaking and doesn't apply to many kinds of plastic materials. Sustainability expert Sarah Lozanova explains to Earth911 that while there are many complications with recycling plastics, that's not the entire story. "There are so many different types of resins and processes used in manufacturing plastic bottles, making sorting and recycling infinitely more complicated and expensive," she writes. "Many plastic recycling collection centers must manually sort these materials to avoid contamination."

But, she notes, plastic bottles in particular are seeing a change. While in the past it was difficult to make them into new bottles, it's much more possible now. "Some beverage companies have been increasing the demand for recycled plastic bottles, closing the loop on recycling," she explains. It's important to reuse your Evian and then throw it into the proper bin when it gets damaged — or just drink water from the tap in the first place.

Myth 2: "It Doesn't Really Do Anything"

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One big myth about recycling is that it has no real impact on the worldwide waste issue, and only deals with a tiny fraction of global materials. However, that's not the case — and because of it, people recycle a lot less than you might think. The Executive Director of Recycle Across America, Mitch Hedlund, told Mental Floss in 2015 that only 34.5 percent of America recycles, and some of that material can't be used because it's put in the wrong bin. If that rate were raised to 75 percent, he predicted, "it will be the CO2 equivalent of removing 50 million cars from the roads each year." And, Mother Jones reports, while waste management companies often say recycling is too expensive and inefficient, smaller companies have been proving them wrong, bringing about huge savings and diverting large amounts of waste from landfill.

Myth 3: "Sorting Through Paper Isn't Worth The Time"

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It's occasionally thought that the only kinds of paper that can be recycled are completely pristine and have no ink on them . That's not true; recycling companies deal with paper from everywhere from printing houses to newspapers and post offices. Ink isn't ever the problem here, and recycling paper is important; making recycled paper stock uses 70 percent less energy than new. Different recycling plants have different rules; for instance, some can cope with sticky paper, like Post-Its, while others can't. And paper needs to be clean to be recycled, so that paper bag that held your take-out container of chow mein is probably not going to make it unless you rinse it.

Myth 4: "It Takes More Energy To Recycle Than To Produce A New Bottle"

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Does it really take so much energy to sort, clean, compress and process a bottle or bit of paper at a recycling facility that it's more energy-efficient just to buy a new one? Not true, according to recycling statisticians RRS. "A 2010 life cycle inventory showed for every pound of recycled PET [recyclable plastic] flake used instead of virgin, energy use is reduced by 84 percent, and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by 71.1 percent," consultant Keefe Harrison writes. The truth is that recycling reduces energy emissions across the board — and even though some products are hard to recycle right now, researchers are working on ways to make the process more efficient.

Myth 5: "It's Not Getting Any Better"

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Au contraire. Recycling technologies are advancing rapidly; recent studies, for instance, show that we're soon going to be capable of making a zero-waste cell phone with all-recyclable components, and battery makers will likely start to use old cathodes to make new lithium products in the future. Processes are getting better, and that means it's important to keep abreast of developments in your local area; what recycling plans are being used? What can you do to make sure all your waste is being used as efficiently as possible? Get on top of it. And if your office or apartment block doesn't have a recycling plan, ask why and start campaigning to make it happen.