Title:The recycling contradiction: Why recycling alone fails to protect the environment
Here’s some straight talk on recycling that you’re unlikely to hear anywhere else. Once a week in my neighborhood, all the neighbors pull out their recycling bins and place them by the curb where recycling trucks can pick them up. Everybody talks about how recycling is good for the environment, but we never really talk about what’s inside those bins. Have you taken a look at what’s in there?
People are recycling old cardboard boxes from laundry detergent made with toxic ingredients and chemicals that wash down the drain and pollute the streams, groundwater and, ultimately, the ocean. They’re recycling soft drink cans loaded with either high-fructose corn syrup — the sweetener that promotes obesity and mental disorders in children — or artificial chemical sweeteners that cause cancer and neurological malfunction.
I’ve seen people recycle prescription drug boxes and over-the-counter drug boxes. I’ve seen them recycle cans of household chemical cleaning products and personal care products made with all sorts of cancer-causing chemicals. I’ve actually looked into some of these bins and found antibacterial soap (toxic chemicals), lawn pesticide containers (more chemicals), and perfume bottles (extremely toxic to the ecosystems of waterways).
It all makes me wonder. What’s the point of recycling all this packaging if the products being purchased and consumed are toxic to the environment in the first place?
Recycling programs are created to eliminate consumer guilt
Do you know what occurs to me in all of this? Recycling isn’t about saving the planet. If it were about saving the planet, people wouldn’t buy these products in the first place. Recycling is a system for eliminating consumer guilt. It is designed to give everyday consumers a token measure that they can feel good about.
Recycling lets them believe they are saving the planet while they are flushing all these chemicals down the drain and spreading them on their lawns and gardens. They are putting toxic products in their cars, on their hair and into their mouths and bodies. Recycling is then presented as a solution to make these people feel good even as they are destroying the environment with every single product they consume.
Purchasing choices are far more important than recycling
You know what’s really important in protecting the environment? Buying eco-friendly products in the first place.
When you live a healthy lifestyle, a lifestyle that truly prioritizes respect for the planet, you don’t end up with a lot of excess packaging to recycle in the first place. You don’t end up with aluminum cans around the house or plastic bottles of diet soda. When you buy fresh, raw ingredients, the only thing you are left with are some plastic or paper bags, both of which are easily recycled.
The way to save the environment is to make better decisions at the point of purchase. Don’t buy lawn products containing chemicals that damage the environment. Don’t buy laundry detergent in any form unless it’s fragrance-free and eco-friendly. Don’t buy skin care products you wouldn’t eat, because most things you put on your skin get absorbed into your body anyway. That’s how you save the environment: Through purchasing decisions, not by recycling the discarded boxes of toxic products.
There is great hypocrisy in the recycling system. If it is about saving the planet, you shouldn’t be buying those products in the first place. If it is about saving the planet, stop putting those pesticides on your lawn. If it is about saving the planet, stop poisoning your body with prescription drugs. There are detectable levels of prescription drugs (like antidepressants) in municipal water supplies today.
You might wonder if I am against recycling. No, not at all. I whole-heartedly support recycling. I think it is important to reuse materials. Instead of cutting down new trees, we should be using old paper and old cardboard. Instead of mining new metals out of the ground, we should be recycling old aluminum and tin. This is especially true with computers and electronics. We should be disposing of these products in environmentally conscious ways. I am not against recycling.
What I am against is the idea that people think they are saving the planet because they put a bin of plastic bottles out by the street every week. That’s ridiculous. The products I saw in my neighbors’ bins are so toxic to the planet and the environment that the recycling effort hardly seems to matter. It’s sort of like saying, “Let’s poison all the fish with these chemicals, and then recycle the box they came in so we can save the planet!”
Recycling consumer delusions
I have also visited friends or been in other people’s houses where their pantries and refrigerators were full of the most toxic products you can imagine. Their house smelled of fragrance, laundry detergent, dryer sheets, perfumes, colognes and shampoos. I could just sense the toxicity of their environment, and yet they were avid recyclers.
They dutifully sorted the containers of all their toxic products into different recycling bins without even a hint of awareness about their level of self-delusion. As I saw this, I thought to myself, “You people are insane; you’re not saving the planet. You’re only saving yourself from guilt.” What they were really recycling, it turns out, is the same delusion shared by most consumers: that it’s okay to dump anything you want into the environment as long as you recycle the box it came in.
But recycling is not some game where the more you recycle, the more you are saving the planet. In reality, the less packaging you buy in the first place, the more you’re helping protect the environment. You shouldn’t be buying products in overstuffed packages, wasteful food containers and plastic snack bags. You could be buying from local co-ops. Get your whole grains by the pound. You could buy raw fruits and vegetables that don’t require fancy packaging. For soaps, you could be buying Dr. Bronner’s soaps, which come in economy-sized bottles. Those are the types of products you buy when you genuinely care about the planet.
Of course, if you care about the planet, you also shouldn’t be taking prescription drugs and urinating them back into the water supply. How is that for polluting the planet? Don’t you realize that everything you put in your mouth ends up getting flushed down the toilet? Sure, they treat the wastewater, but municipal water treatment systems don’t remove pharmaceuticals (and were never designed to).
Why do you think the Gulf of Mexico is practically dead these days? The coral reefs are dying and the fish are poisoned with heavy metals and other chemicals because the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico. It brings in all the chemicals the people of this country have flushed down their toilets and drains. Think about that the next time you have a clogged drain. Think about what you are pouring down that drain to unclog it. Those chemicals are going to end up in the environment somewhere.
So the next time you load up that curbside bin to be picked up by your local recycling company, ask yourself, “What are the environmental impacts of these products?” If you think you are saving the planet just by recycling the containers, you’re kidding yourself. You are not saving anything. You are just making yourself feel better while you continue to poison the planet. If you really want to save the planet, stop buying and consuming toxic chemicals. Put the chemical companies out of business by refusing to buy their products.
I know this is not a popular view of recycling. But I am not here to be popular, I’m here to get you to think about what’s really going on, and to recognize your role in it. I was once a consumer of numerous toxic products, but I recognized the error, adjusted my consumption patterns, and now I practice genuine environmental responsibility (and I still recycle, too). I urge you to do the same. Ask yourself what you’re still buying that’s harmful to the environment, then switch to safer, more eco-friendly products from companies like Seventh Generation, which offers laundry and home care products that are far safer for the environment than more conventional products.
Saving the planet isn’t really about recycling. It’s more about what you consume and flush back into the environment. If you stop poisoning the environment with common products for the home, kitchen, laundry, lawn and garage, you’ll do far more good than recycling a few plastic bottles.
And then you’ll actually have a real reason to feel good about your role as an environmentally-responsible consumer.