So much of what we consume is wrapped, packaged or bagged in plastic. Recycling bins are filled and emptied, and consumers are reassured that their old containers have been given new life as a water bottle or perhaps even a polyester shirt. But is recycling worth it?

The truth behind recycling is far more troubling. In fact, many have begun to call it “the myth of recycling” or “wish-cycling.” We have all been told that once an item is placed in the universally recognizable blue bin, marked with the even more recognizable recycling symbol, it has been discarded responsibly. Instead of the guilt that might come when throwing something in a garbage bin, the recycling bin has always offered some comfort. Yes, that salad might have come in a single-use plastic container, but it was marked with a recycling symbol, so all is well! Sadly, this is not the case … 

Since the 1960s, large plastic manufacturers (most notably Coca-Cola) have spent billions of dollars in marketing to convince consumers that recycling keeps plastic and other waste out of landfills and oceans. This narrative began when environmentalists targeted large companies, demanding they take responsibility for the excessive amount of plastic waste they produced. Instead of taking responsibility for the proper disposal of their goods, or even ditching plastic altogether and coming up with biodegradable solutions, companies decided to turn the responsibility onto the consumer. Sixty years later, we are being sold the same myth. 

Many of us see the recycling symbol and assume the item is recyclable. This is a reasonable assumption — that when a symbol indicates recyclability, it can be trusted. Unfortunately, the truth behind recycling is once again troubling. 

What many of us believe to be the “recycling symbol” is, in actuality, an indicator of an item’s composition…not all plastics are created equal. If looked at closely and in the right light, it is possible to make out a small number in the middle of that symbol. The numbers range from 1 to 7, and depending on the number, the item is either recyclable in one’s region or not. For example, many regions only accept #1 and #2 plastics since they are the most easily recyclable numbers. However, many cities (including New York) do not state this information clearly, and instead, only provide a list of “recyclable” and “non-recyclable” forms of plastic. If you’re thinking this process is much more complicated than it needs to be, you’re not alone. 

Graphic courtesy of Oceana.org

The reason for this complex process of waste management lies in the fact that plastic producers rely on their consumers’ belief in the recycling process. Without this long-held belief, companies would have been pressured to provide alternatives to single-use plastic much sooner. As people have grown more skeptical about where “recyclable goods” end up, demands for biodegradable packaging have grown as well. 

Only 8% of plastic waste in the United States is actually recycled.

When only 8% of plastic waste in the United States is actually recycled, it is clear that the information and narrative around recycling in the U.S. needs to change. As stated by the CEO of Recology, a company that collects and processes municipal solid waste, “The simple fact is, there is just too much plastic—and too many different types of plastics being produced; and there exist few, if any, viable end markets for the material.”

Producers will only make changes to their practices if pressured by consumers. Therefore, understanding and pushing for the truth behind recycling will help to make lasting changes for current and future generations. 

Understand more about the process and ESG Services.

Author: Sofia Assab, ESG Analyst | [email protected]

Contact Us

Don’t let yourself, or your company, fall victim to ineffective and costly ESG practices. Contact our advisory team today for a clear path forward in your ESG journey.