Recycling was supposed to help save the planet. It's past time for us to rethink that idea.
Photo by Vivianne Lemay on Unsplash

Those of us who want a sustainable future for our grandkids try really hard to do the right things for our planet. We grew up internalizing the three R's–Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—but it appears that one of those Rs has not lived up to its promise.

We all know that plastic and excessive packaging of all kinds are problematic, but most of us don't worry about it too much because most of it can be recycled anyway, right? We cheerfully put our yogurt containers and pizza boxes and egg cartons into our curbside recycling bin, confident that we've done our part for the environment by not throwing them into a landfill.

We imagine our municipalities taking that recycling to some kind of local recycling plant, where our plastic and paper gets transformed into shiny new eco-friendly products. Right?


Wrong. That's not at all what happens, and never has been. Today, much of what we're putting into our recycling bins isn't being recycled at all—even the stuff that theoretically can be. Instead, it's ending up in landfills or polluting our oceans.

RELATED: A dead whale just washed ashore with 88 pounds of plastic waste in its stomach. This needs to stop.

How is that possible, when we've spent so much time and energy convincing Americans to recycle?

Part of the problem is that instead of recycling these things ourselves, we've spent decades shipping tons and tons of our trash across the ocean to be recycled in China and SE Asia. But last year, China announced that would no longer take most of our recyclables, including mixed paper and most plastics. That cuts out most of our household recycling, and without China buying our waste anymore, there's nowhere for it to go.

Since 2018, we've been shipping more of our plastic to other developing nations in Southeast Asia, including Thailand and Vietnam. But according to Unearthed, the investigative arm of Greenpeace, those countries don't have the environmental infrastructure to handle that waste responsibly. Some of that recycling ends up being dumped into the ocean.

Why don't we just recycle our waste ourselves? Compared to the vast amounts of recyclable materials we dispose of, we have very few recycling plants in the U.S.

According to an article by Alana Semuels in The Atlantic, that's partially individual Americans' own fault. We are notoriously terrible at keeping track of what can be recycled and what can't, so we toss all kind of non-recyclable items in the recycling bin to let others (up to now, low-paid workers in China) figure out. We're also bad at keeping recyclables separated and clean the way they have to be in order to be go through the recycling process. Since it's cost prohibitive to hire people to sort and clean recyclables, waste management companies are telling people they either have to pay a lot more for recycling or ditch it altogether.

And because money is money, most people are choosing the latter. And many localities aren't even offering people the choice.

What does all of this mean for the average American who wants to do right by the planet? First, it means we need to focus a whole lot more on reducing and reusing and stop putting all of our eggs into the recycling basket. It means avoiding plastic whenever and wherever we can and not assuming we can just toss it into a blue bin somewhere. It means utilizing reusable water bottles, shopping bags, dishes and silverware, etc. as a matter of habit, not as an afterthought.

We can also make choices with our wallets. Only buy things when absolutely necessary, and try to buy used first. Whenever possible, choose items without packaging, and when packaging seems unnecessary or excessive, question the companies who are using it. Until we pressure the powers that be to stop wrapping everything we use, we're going to continue to pollute our planet. All of that plastic eventually has to go somewhere.

RELATED: If you don't think twice about the plastic strap around a package, here's why you should.

Pretend that paper is a limited commodity. Pretend that plastic is literally destroying our home. Pretend that it's not normal to consume in excess and that very little is actually garbage.

Basically, we need to completely overhaul our approach to waste, from our own kitchens to the corporations that package what we purchase. But at the very least, we need to stop thinking of recycling as a hallmark of sustainability. We face many environmental questions in the 21st century, and it's clear that we aren't going to find the answers in the bottom of the recycling bin.

True

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday are teaming up to find the people who lead with love everyday.

Know someone in your neighborhood who's known for their optimistic attitude, commitment to bettering their community and always leading with love? Tell us about them for the chance to win a $2,000 grant to keep doing good in their community.

Nomination ends November 22, 2020

Acts of kindness and compassion are always inspiring. A veterinarian gave a different spin on the phrase "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em".

The poor little pup in this video walked into this shelter with a history of being abused. He was so traumatized that he wasn't eating. The vet treating him wasn't sure what to do, so he decided to book a table for two: a the dog's place. It is not clear whether he got an official invite from the canine in question, but he felt pretty safe about showing up unannounced. He walked into the cage and sat down next to the dog. With his back up against the corner of his new (and hopefully temporary) domain, the rescue stared apprehensively at his human guest. The vet presented a dog dish with food and put it in front of the dog. The frightened pup just looked at the dish and made no attempt to eat. Then he broke out another dog dish identical to the one he just gave to his four-legged patient and started eating out of that bowl. And then came the turning point.


Keep Reading Show less
True

A lot of people here are like family to me," Michelle says about Bread for the City — a community nonprofit located in Washington DC that provides local residents with food, clothing, health care, social advocacy, and legal services. And since the pandemic began, the need to support organizations like Bread for the City is greater than ever, which is why Amazon is Delivering Smiles to local charities across the country this holiday season.

Watch the full story:

Amazon is giving back by fulfilling hundreds of AmazonSmile Charity Lists, and donating essential pantry and food items to help organizations like Bread for the City provide to those disproportionately impacted this year.

Visit AmazonSmile Charity Lists to donate directly to a local charity in your community, or simply shop smile.amazon.com and Amazon will donate a portion of the purchase price of eligible products to your charity of choice.
Anne Owens and Luke Redito / Wikimedia Commons
True

When Madeline Swegle was a little girl growing up in Burke, VA, she loved watching the Blue Angels zip through the sky. Her family went to see the display every time it was in town, and it was her parents' encouragement to pursue her dreams that led her to the U.S. Naval Academy in 2017.

Before beginning the intense three-year training required to become a tactical air (TACAIR) pilot, Swegle had never been in an aircraft before; piloting was simply something she was interested in. It turns out she's got a gift for it—and not only is she skilled, she finds the "exhilaration to be unmatched."

"I'm excited to have this opportunity to work harder and fly high performance jet aircraft in the fleet," Swegle said in a statement released by the Navy. "It would've been nice to see someone who looked like me in this role; I never intended to be the first. I hope it's encouraging to other people."

As Swegle's story shows, representation and equality matter. And the responsibility to advance equality for all people - especially Black Americans facing racism - falls on individuals, organizations, businesses, and governmental leadership. This clear need for equality is why P&G established the Take On Race Fund to fight for justice, advance economic opportunity, enable greater access to education and health care, and make our communities more equitable. The funds raised go directly into organizations like NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, YWCA Stand Against Racism and the United Negro College Fund, helping to level the playing field.

Keep Reading Show less

Do you know that guy who has never had an issue with his TV/internet provider? Neither do I. If you claim you have never had issues with your bill going up without warning, then you are either lying or you own the cable company. Jake Lawson apparently does not own a cable company, and was prepared to communicate his frustrations regarding his bill in a most creative way.

First off, Jake understands what everyone should realize. The customer service representative doesn't own the cable company either, so yelling at someone who is just trying to make a living like all of us is not the answer. Their job is hard enough as it is so give them a break. Jake gave them more than a break. He gave them a song.


Keep Reading Show less