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Is Recycling A Myth – This Reveals The Truth

The vision of a green, circular economy where waste becomes a resource is alluring. However, many of us may have asked the question: Does recycling actually get recycled, or is it all a myth.

TL;DR: The recycling process isn’t always as transparent or efficient as many people believe, and while recycling can indeed be beneficial, not all materials we put in the recycling bin actually get recycled. The solution doesn’t solely lie in recycling more, but also in reducing, reusing, and rethinking our consumption habits.

How Recycling Works


Collection is the first step in recycling. Local waste services use dedicated trucks to collect recyclable materials from various locations. These can be curbside pickups, designated recycling centers, or commercial establishments.

  • Environmental Impact: By having specialized routes and vehicles for recyclable materials, it ensures that recyclables are not contaminated with regular waste. This reduces the amount of waste going to landfills by a significant margin.
  • Stats and Facts: In the United States, about 75% of the waste stream is recyclable, but only around 30% of it is actually recycled. Improved collection can increase this percentage, thus reducing landfill usage.


Sorting occurs at the recycling facility, where either workers or automated systems sort materials by type—paper, plastic, glass, and metal. This is essential to ensure that each type of material is processed correctly.

  • Environmental Impact: Proper sorting ensures that recyclables are processed efficiently, reducing the energy needed in subsequent stages. Additionally, contaminants that might otherwise ruin the recycling process are removed.
  • Stats and Facts: Modern automated sorting facilities can process up to 400 tons of recyclables per day, improving efficiency, and cutting labor costs.


Processing involves the transformation of sorted items into raw materials. Each type of material has its specific process:

  • Paper is pulped, which means it is mixed with water and chemicals, then heated to break it down into fibers.
  • Glass is crushed and melted.
  • Plastics and metals are shredded and melted.
  • Environmental Impact: Processing recycled materials requires significantly less energy compared to extracting and processing virgin materials.
  • Stats and Facts: Recycling aluminum cans saves 95% of the energy required to make the same amount of aluminum from raw materials. Recycling just one ton of paper saves enough energy to power the average American home for six months.


Manufacturing is the final step where the raw materials are used to create new products.

  • Environmental Impact: Using recycled materials in manufacturing cuts down on the need for virgin materials, conserving natural resources, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Stats and Facts: Manufacturing with recycled materials can use 50% less energy on average compared to using raw materials. For example, producing glass from recycled materials reduces related air pollution by 20% and water pollution by 50%.

The Recycling Reality: Not Everything Gets Recycled

I recommend understanding three key factors that impact recycling efficiency: contamination, market forces, and regional policies.

  • Contamination occurs when non-recyclable materials or dirty items end up in the recycling bin. This can disrupt the recycling process, often leading to an entire batch of recyclables being sent to the landfill.
  • Market forces greatly influence recycling. If there’s no demand for a recycled material in the marketplace, it’s less likely to be recycled. It’s simple economics. For instance, recycling paper and aluminum is generally profitable, whereas recycling plastic often isn’t.
  • Regional policies and infrastructure also play a significant role. Different countries, states, or even cities have different recycling capabilities and rules. For example, while some places might recycle all types of plastic, others may only recycle certain types.

The Bigger Picture Beyond Recycling

Given this, does it mean recycling is a myth? Not at all. It means that we need to reinterpret our perspective on waste management.

Reduce, Reuse, Rethink

Before we think about recycling, we should focus on reducing and reusing. Reducing consumption cuts down on the waste we produce in the first place. Reusing extends the life of products and delays their journey to the landfill or recycling facility.

For instance, instead of buying bottled water, I recommend using a refillable water bottle. This simple switch significantly reduces waste.

Sustainable Purchasing Choices

We also need to consider the entire lifecycle of a product before purchasing it. For example, opt for products with minimal packaging, choose items made from recycled or recyclable materials, and support companies with sustainable practices.

Improving Recycling Habits

Proper recycling can also help improve the overall efficiency of the process. We should ensure we’re only recycling clean and appropriate materials. Familiarize yourself with local recycling policies and be mindful of what goes in the recycling bin.

Here are the tips that will help your habits going into the future:

  1. Understanding the Entire Lifecycle: Before purchasing a product, understanding its entire lifecycle means considering how it’s made, what materials are used, how it’s packaged, how it will be used, and how it will be disposed of or recycled. This helps consumers choose products that have minimal environmental impact throughout their entire existence.
  2. Opting for Minimal Packaging: Many products come with excessive packaging, which contributes to waste. By choosing products with minimal or eco-friendly packaging, consumers can reduce the amount of waste that ends up in landfills.
  3. Choosing Recycled or Recyclable Materials: Products made from recycled materials help in reducing the demand for virgin materials. On the other hand, products that can be recycled are preferable as they can be turned into new products after their useful life, reducing waste.
  4. Supporting Companies with Sustainable Practices: Researching and supporting companies that are committed to sustainability in their manufacturing, sourcing, and overall business practices encourages a positive impact. Many companies offer transparency about their sustainability efforts, and these are the companies to support.
  5. Considering Durability and Longevity: Often, sustainable products are designed to last longer. By choosing quality items that don’t need to be replaced frequently, consumers can minimize waste and often save money in the long run.
  6. Avoiding Single-Use Products: Items designed to be used once and then discarded contribute significantly to waste. Opting for reusable alternatives wherever possible promotes sustainability.
  7. Local and Seasonal Purchasing: Buying local and seasonal products reduces transportation emissions and often supports more sustainable farming practices. This can also contribute to the local economy.
  8. Checking Certifications and Labels: There are various certifications and labels that indicate a product’s sustainability, such as Fair Trade, Organic, or Rainforest Alliance. Looking for these labels can guide consumers toward more responsible choices.
  9. Mindful Consumption: Finally, sustainability isn’t just about what you buy, but also how much you buy. Being conscious of actual needs versus wants, and purchasing only what’s necessary, plays a big role in sustainable consumption.
  10. Educating Oneself: Taking the time to learn about the impacts of different materials, production methods, and brands can lead to more informed and responsible purchasing decisions.

Behind the Scenes: Unveiling the Recycling Process

To better understand why not everything gets recycled, it’s important to peel back the layers of the recycling process.

The Recycling Journey

Items destined for recycling take a complex path, going through a series of stages:

  1. Collection: Our recyclables get picked up by waste management services from our homes, offices, or public bins. They are then transported to a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF).
  2. Sorting: The materials enter an intricate process of sorting by type and composition. This process might involve manual labor, machines, or more commonly, a combination of both. They use a variety of technologies such as magnets for metals, optical sorters for plastics, and eddy currents for non-magnetic metals.
  3. Baling: Once the materials are sorted, they are compressed and bundled into bales for easier transportation.
  4. Shipping: These bales of recyclables are then transported, often to other countries, where they are to be processed and turned into new materials.
  5. Processing: The materials are transformed back into raw forms. Plastic is shredded and turned into pellets, paper is pulped, and metal is melted.
  6. Remanufacturing: These raw materials are then used to manufacture new items.

Why Some Items Don’t Get Recycled

In theory, this process seems straightforward. But in practice, it faces numerous roadblocks.

Contamination: The efficacy of recycling is highly dependent on the input materials’ cleanliness and sortability. Contaminated items, be it food-soiled paper or the wrong type of plastic, can clog machines, downgrade the quality of the recycled material, or at worst, make an entire batch of potential recyclables unrecyclable.

Feasibility and Market Demand: Not all materials are created equal when it comes to recycling. Some materials like aluminum and paper can be recycled indefinitely without losing their quality, making them highly desirable.

In contrast, plastic often loses its quality each time it’s recycled. After a few cycles, it becomes unusable. Given the relatively low cost of producing new plastic, there’s often little market demand for recycled plastic.

Geographical Variation: The facilities and policies in place to handle waste can vary greatly depending on where you are. In certain areas, you might be able to recycle a wide range of materials. In others, only basic categories like glass, paper, and metal are accepted.

Taking Action: Sustainable Waste Management

Recognizing the limitations of our current recycling system is the first step towards effective change.

Conscious Consumption

One of the most impactful things we can do as individuals is to consume less and consume wisely. This might mean choosing products with less packaging, opting for reusable items over single-use ones, or supporting companies with sustainable practices.

Advocacy and Legislation

On a broader scale, we can advocate for better waste management policies. This might involve supporting Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws, which hold manufacturers responsible for the disposal of their products.

Investing in Innovation

Lastly, supporting advancements in waste management technology can also make a significant difference. This could involve funding research into better recycling methods, or supporting the creation of new materials designed with recyclability in mind.


Recycling is not a myth, but its benefits are often overstated due to a lack of understanding about what actually gets recycled. It’s a piece of the puzzle, but not the entire solution. The key lies in a holistic approach — reduce, reuse, and recycle, in that order.

As consumers, we need to change our mindset about waste and make more sustainable choices in our daily lives. This means not only recycling more, but also reducing, reusing, and rethinking our consumption habits.

Note: The next time you toss an item into the recycling bin, remember that its fate is not certain. But your choices can help tip the scales towards a more sustainable world.


What percentage of recyclables actually get recycled?

It varies by material and region. For example, in the U.S., about 66% of paper and 27% of plastic get recycled.

What materials are most profitable to recycle?

Metals, especially aluminum and copper, are often the most profitable materials to recycle. They can be recycled indefinitely without losing their properties.

Why is plastic recycling less efficient?

Plastic recycling is less efficient due to its lower demand in the market, the high cost of recycling, and the degradation of plastic quality each time it’s recycled.

How can I reduce my waste?

Consider adopting a minimalist lifestyle, buying only what you need, choosing products with less packaging, composting organic waste, and making a habit of bringing your own shopping bags, coffee cups, and water bottles.

What is ‘zero waste’ and how can I achieve it?

‘Zero waste’ is a lifestyle where one aims to send nothing to the landfill or recycling center. It involves a lot of planning, reusing, composting, and conscious decision-making. Achieving it isn’t easy, but every small step towards it helps the environment.


  • Chris Chamberlan

    Chris Chamberlan, passionate animal welfare activist and USC graduate, conducted undercover RSPCA missions exposing slaughterhouse malpractices. A vegan and advocate for humane treatment, Chris has spoken at international conferences, been involved in vegan outreach, and founded Solarpunk Solutions for sustainability. His blending of animal welfare with eco-living principles for a compassionate future.

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