Don’t get me wrong; recycling is a very good thing.
Making new products from old materials – especially when it comes to plastics, papers, aluminum, and glass – can use significantly less energy than making a new product from virgin material.
However, recycling is not the “holy grail” of Sustainability.
The problem with treating it as such is that recycling, like composting and even donating clothing, only focuses on the end of life of a product and often isn’t as sustainable of a solution as we have been led to believe.
Recycling has become a common element in the lives of most Americans, and yet there are still many misconceptions about how recycling works. Recycling an item does not eliminate its carbon footprint. All recycled items must be re-processed, which takes water, energy, and time. Additionally, many recycling processes are actually more aptly titled “down-cycling,” where a product is turned into a less valuable product: think plastic food containers being turned into carpet fiber. As the article The Myth of the Recycling Solution states, “Not all recycling is equally valuable. True cradle-to-cradle recycling is the most valuable because it conserves virgin materials.”
Let’s consider the example of plastic PETE water bottles.
Once recycled, the bottles are most often first shredded or melted, and then are down-cycled into fiber for things like carpets or plastic lumber. They are not used to make more water bottles. While this is still better than throwing the bottle away, the “down-cycled” items will still eventually end up in a landfill, and new virgin petroleum will be needed to make new PETE water bottles. A much better option would be choosing to drink tap water from a reusable water bottle instead of using a plastic PETE water bottle in the first place. Although the reusable bottle may not be “recyclable”, its reusable quality gives it a much smaller overall carbon footprint.
Composting has been gaining hype recently as an eco-friendly response to Food Waste, yet while it does have many benefits, as a true solution to Food Waste, it falls short.
The first issue with composting is that it does not retain the value of the product.
Composting, most simply put, is turning food back into soil. While this is better than sending food to a landfill, it still completely wastes the vast quantities of materials and energy that went into producing the food in the first place. The EIA explains:
“Agricultural energy consumption includes both direct and indirect energy consumption. Direct energy consumption includes the use of diesel, electricity, propane, natural gas, and renewable fuels for activities on the farm. Indirect energy consumption includes the use of fuel and feedstock (especially natural gas) in the manufacturing of agricultural chemicals such as fertilizers and pesticides.”
In short, composting can be explained as an incredibly inefficient way to turn soil into more soil. As such, composting should be seen as a last resort before landfilling, not a solution to food waste.
The second issue with composting is that it does not address the source of Food Waste.
Food Waste is a global quandary, and Americans may be the most wasteful of all, with current statistics claiming nearly 50% of all food produced in our country as wasted. This is particularly troubling when it becomes clear that the problem is more aesthetic than logistical. As an article from The Guardian explains, “Vast quantities of fresh produce grown in the US are left in the field to rot, fed to livestock or hauled directly from the field to landfill, because of unrealistic and unyielding cosmetic standards…”
To combat Food Waste, then, we need to not only make sure to use the food we buy, but we must change what we buy. In our capitalistic culture, consumers vote with their dollars. Buying ugly produce from both locals and chains could be instrumental in changing the way our country views food, resulting in a decrease of the food we waste.
The aptly titled Newsweek article, Fast Fashion is Creating an Environmental Crisis, presents a thorough and disturbing look at the current state of the fashion industry. For most folks, “sustainable” use of clothing consists of taking old pieces to a thrift store or charity instead of throwing them away.
According to the article, however, “…charities overall sell only 20 percent of the clothing donated to them.” This is mainly due to the new trend of “Fast Fashion”, which has led to clothing being produced at a faster rate and cheaper quality than ever before. The simple fact of the matter is that these clothing resalers are overwhelmed with material, much of it of too low quality to be salvaged. The clothing that can’t be sold is often shipped overseas or down-cycled into insulation or rags. The article explains:
Though it’s better to downcycle clothes—turn them into less valuable consumer goods like auto-shop rags—than to send them straight to the landfill, it’s not a complete solution. Those rags will still find their way to the landfill after a few uses; insulation will be thrown in the dumpster when it’s torn out of a wall or old car. Everything is broken down further and further until it eventually reaches the landfill.
The cost to the planet isn’t just what the stuff does when it’s put in the ground, though that’s bad enough. The wasted resources it took to create a textile are devastating for the planet. “When it ends up in the landfill, it’s a wasted material,” says Annie Gullingsrud of the Cradle to Cradle Products Innovation Institute. “There’s been an expense to the planet. There’s been an expense to the company [and] sometimes to the people creating the materials. And it creates a need to use virgin materials.”
The simple fact of the matter is that Fast Fashion is not sustainable or responsible. To dress in a way that cares for our planet and its people, it is best to buy well-made, long-lasting items, and fewer items at that.
While this doesn’t match up with current fashion trends, it is important to remember that our present culture is not sustainable, and living responsibly does not reflect current consumer trends. Yet.
Remember, in our consumer driven economy, every dollar you spend (or don’t spend) is a vote. If enough of us choose to change the way we buy – focusing on acquiring reusable, high-quality items and even ugly veggies – producers will begin to notice and change their production models to cater to the sustainable market. By educating yourself and others on the truth of production and waste, we can make changes much more effective than just recycling.
Click here to read the excellent article on the pitfalls of Fast Fashion
Click here to watch a revealing 10 minute documentary on Food Waste
Click here to see a Sustainable Shopping Cheat Sheet
Click here to read more about what it means to be Sustainable