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Alexa Boglitz
Spring 2022
Sustainability

The Problem with Recycling

35 billion plastic bottles are disposed of annually in the US.  Only ~30% are recycled.

Author:  Alexa Boglitz, COL ‘24

As children, most of us have seen and heard the phrase “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle!” The “three R’s” were an attempt to bring awareness to our environmental impact, highlighting our (over) consumption of nearly everything. Unfortunately, the most popular of the three words is the least effective: recycling. 

When most people talk about recycling, they only consider plastic and paper materials. After finishing a milk jug or receiving a graded essay, we instinctively throw it into the blue container with the three arrows making a circle, assuming it will, indeed, get recycled. 

However, recycling is not as successful as we think it is. In 2017, the U.S. generated 267.8 million tons of municipal solid waste, and only 94.2 million tons were recycled or composted– including only 8 percent of all plastics. Within the plastics family, small objects like straws and utensils are not recycled. They are too small and often too contaminated with food to be reused. Moreover, certain types of plastic like PVC (polyvinyl chloride) simply cannot be recycled. 

Even for PET plastic bottles, the most common plastic, the recycling rate is only 30% in the US. Furthermore, recycling is an expensive process, meaning that there is often not an economic incentive for companies to recycle it and it is easier to send the product to the landfill. 

Photo by Evgeny Karchevsky

The focus should shift from recycling to the first two R’s: reduce and reuse. We can examine the efficacy of the three R’s on Georgetown’s campus as a case study. During the months of to-go eating from Leo’s (the Georgetown dining hall), paper bags could be seen overflowing from all trash cans in the dining tent and common rooms. Most of the time the use of the bags were unnecessary– these bags were usually used only once, for a few yards from point A to point B. Once discarded, these bags contributed to our planet’s already overflowing landfills if thrown in the trash and, if thrown in the recycling, required an immense amount of energy to recycle them. More effective alternatives would have been to either limit bags taken (reduce), or to repurpose the bags after their initial use (reuse).

This issue occurs in the fashion industry on an even larger scale. Fast fashion produces 20% of the global water waste and 10% of global carbon emissions, and the industry is only expected to increase in following years. Fast fashion’s short-lived trends exacerbate these problems. For example, cow print was in very high demand a couple months ago, to then quickly lose popularity, pushing consumers to acquire more items to keep up with the break-neck speed of fashion trends. 

As the harmful practices of fast fashion become more prevalent, consumers are becoming increasingly cognizant of the brands from which they shop. People often debate the ethics of buying from a source utilizing underpaid child labor, the sustainability of the brand, and the limited size ranges in trendy stores. More retail companies are responding to consumers’ increased scrutiny by beginning to brand themselves as environmentally friendly, and some have taken genuine steps to reduce the resource footprint of garments. 

But such steps largely miss the point; the more sustainable option is to simply produce and consume fewer clothes. Overconsumption of fashion is a global phenomenon. We are constantly producing more fabric, putting a toll on both our environmental resources for clothing production and our landfills for clothing waste. 

But such steps largely miss the point; the more sustainable option is to simply produce and consume  fewer clothes.

While recycling clothing is possible, most people do not take the steps to recycle their clothing. In fact, recycling rates for all textiles in the US is only about 15%. Instead, most people send their clothes to the garbage or the thrift store. However, even shopping at thrift stores– which has often been seen as the more sustainable option– has its problems, as it may increase the prices for people who actually need to shop there. 

Of course, the world’s environmental problems do not all come down to the average consumer’s habits, and no one expects the average consumer to buy strictly necessary or only sustainably-made goods. However, simply being more conscious of the things we buy is an important step forward and is something everyone can partake in. So in the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle,” we need to start focusing on the first two more.

Tagged
consumerism
fast fashion
recycling