Why You Shouldn’t Recycle

Author: Ruby Helyer


hands holding recyclable items

I bet when opening Nature In The Box today, you weren’t expecting to see a post encouraging you not to recycle, but alas, here we are.

For people who do not consider themselves zero-wasters, or sustainable lovers of the Earth, recycling is usually what they think is the be-all-and-end-all of sustainability.

Many times, I have seen or heard people throw anything and everything into a recycling bin, completely unaware of the potential damage they are doing– potentially worse than if they were to just put their rubbish into the general waste.

What Is Recycling?

The act of recycling a product is that you - the consumer - buys a product, uses said product, and then disposes the packaging of the product into a recycling bin. The lovely recycling workers will then take the recyclable packaging and deconstruct to become another product.

Sometimes the recycled product is deconstructed, and then reconstructed into the same, or similar, product. This is common for metals, such as aluminium, since it is infinitely recyclable.

Sometimes the recycled product is deconstructed, and then reconstructed into something vastly different from its original form; perhaps it is made into something you would never consider it could be made into.

When I was a child, I distinctly remember being told that plastic milk containers were recycled and made into fluffy fleece jackets. Isn’t that mind blowing?!

That is the basic premise of recycling - it sounds great, doesn’t it?

What are the Problems with Recycling?

Nothing in this world is perfect, and that includes our effort to rid the planet of dangerous single use plastics, or other items that are difficult to repurpose or that will never biodegrade.

Many of our items are produced with a small recycling logo on them. Almost every type of plastic you can buy has a little triangle with a number from one to seven inside of it, as well as other materials like paper, cardboard, metals or glass.

The issue comes in the lack of education.

Not all recyclable items are created equally. Although the recycling logo itself is fairly universal, it doesn’t mean that absolutely any product it’s attached to will always be recycled and be reincarnated as a whole new thing each time.

Recycling Plastic

Plastic recycling infographic

The first issue is that the numbers on a plastic recyclable object have meaning. The numbers range from 1 to 7 and the higher the number simply means the less virgin plastic in the product.

A product made with plastic 1 or 2 is most commonly recycled in the majority of places that offer recycling. These products are usually made from mostly virgin plastic, which allows for it to be melted down and added to older plastic to create something else while still being safe and sturdy.

Most plastics from 3 - 7 contain a mix of virgin plastic and recycled plastic. Since plastic is not infinitely recyclable, it has a finite amount of times it can be melted and added to new products. All new plastic products contain some virgin plastics, even 1 and 2.

So, given that the numbers on plastics alone have pretty strong meanings, it is an issue that many people are not aware, or often just don’t care, what the numbers mean and lump all numbers together to be recycled, even when it’s not accepted.

Since only certain cities, or countries, recycle all types of plastic or other products, it can be damaging for other types to end up at the recycling plant. This causes more work for the employees and gives a much higher chance of contamination.

Cross Contamination


On the topic of contamination, it is somewhat common knowledge that dirty recycling can ruin an entire batch.

When possible (hopefully, always), you should clean any recyclable products before taking them to the drop offs.

Not only will this lessen many reasons for contamination, but also, commonly recycling is sorted by hand by the employees. I sure wouldn’t want to touch someone’s moldy food remnants while sorting through plastics and metals, would you?

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Although buying packaging that can be recycled in available in every corner of the globe, the availability to actually recycle it correctly, sadly, isn’t.

I have lived in many countries, and even within the same countries recycling culture can differ quite vastly. It’s a job in itself to keep up with all the information and the dos and don’ts of your city’s recycling plans.

My best advice to avoid bringing incorrect recycling habits to a new destination is simply to check online on the local government’s website. The information will be there if you look for it, and once you know it then you can follow the rules easily without making mistakes and contaminating recycling batches or throwing away something that could have been recycled in your new city.

So, I Really Shouldn’t Recycle?

No, of course I really want you to recycle; however, I’d prefer that you educate yourself on local guidance, go a step further and clean your recycled items before taking them, and even find out other ways something could be recycled if your city doesn’t offer it at the moment.

What Else Can I Do?

Remember that recycling a product or packaging shouldn’t be the first or only option.

Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.

There are always more options available to you before throwing something away, and simply because it can be recycled, doesn’t mean it has to be right away. Even if only reusing a product once again before throwing it away, it’s better to get a new use out of it than to buy another single-use product instead.

A few ways to reuse simple household recyclable items:

  • Use the back of old letters or envelopes as scrap paper or for your shopping list
  • Use old cardboard to catch paint drips under an opened paint tin
  • Pasta sauce jars make great pen holders, storage jars for dry goods, make up brushes, etc
  • Empty plastic tubs (like hummus pots) are great for keeping cut vegetables from going dry
  • Use bread bags to tie smelly rubbish inside so your rubbish bin doesn’t smell

Check out this article with 9 easy tips to recycle and reuse at home next for more ideas.  

Think Outside the Box

Recycling doesn’t start and end with the products that hold a small triangular logo on them; there are many recycling initiatives outside of the governmental standard.

Oftentimes, plastics like bottle caps are non-recyclable at the local level; however, Lush UK started an initiative to receive your bottle tops in order to recycled them themselves. You can find the information about it here, but simply, you collect plastic bottle tops and take them to a Lush store, where they work with companies who break them down and get the plastic made into something new.

Discarded mascara brushes are pretty much totally non-recyclable, but luckily there are many small companies that can re-use these small brushes.

One way they can be used is to help brush oil off of small animals caught in unfortunate oil spills. While it is possible these companies do get inundated with these products, it is easy to search to see if there are others taking in similar supplies.

There are many other companies, both locally and globally, that offer their own recycling initiatives outside of government-run offerings. Search for them and use them, as well as encourage your friends to use them too, and eventually they may become more readily available for everyone to access.

plastic bottle lids

Enact Change

The biggest way to call for action on recycling is to contact your local government, council, HR departments, school leaders, etc.

While it’s great knowing you’re doing your bit to help the environment, there is always more to be done by encouraging others to do the same.

If every person who did their bit at home campaigned to their local council or government, there could potentially be a great, big change in a positive direction. You don’t have to work on in silence when change can happen.

If your government aren’t doing enough, you can also influence smaller spaces such as your household, school, or work environments. I became a recycling advocate at my school, where I was able to get new recycling bins in place and held meetings to educate people on correctly using them, as well as other initiatives they could follow. And I’ve seen the difference it has made.

To Recycle, or not to Recycle?

So, a final note to say, that I do, of course, advocate for recycling. But, only when it’s done right. Lazy recycling becomes problematic while also allowing the perpetrator to think they are doing a good thing. A little bit of recycling education goes a long way.

About the author

Ruby is a Brit lost in space. She enjoys travelling the world, having lived in a handful of different countries she now lives and studies in beautiful Tennessee, US. When she isn’t fighting the environmental battle against climate change, she can be found walking her dogs, creating illustrations, or experimenting in the kitchen.

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