Recycling might not be enough to reduce your carbon footprint. Here’s why.


As I stood behind the garbage cans during lunch and encouraged my peers to recycle their slushy cups and milk cartons, I was surprised to be met with responsive and enthusiastic reactions. For the most part, the gentle reminder was taken adequately. However, as the period came to a close, a student who shall remain unnamed exclaimed,

“Recycling is a scam. Prove me wrong.”

Well, unnamed student, here we are. Although scam wouldn’t be my first word of choice, and I believe the message is misguided, there is reason to the claim that recycling isn’t the most efficient way to reduce your carbon footprint. Now, I could be wrong, but considering the context of the situation, I don’t think this unnamed person was concerned with his environmental impact.

Those who know me know that I am a big advocate of reduce, reuse and recycle in that order. The order is significant for many reasons, and while I think everyone deep down knows the order is noteworthy, we tend to practice it in order of most to least convenient. Don’t get me wrong, you should be doing anything you can to lessen the amount of waste you produce. In terms of what’s better for the environment, putting something in the recycling bin rather than the garbage is the obvious answer. But, reduce and reuse come before recycling for a reason.

Recycling is a two way street, and it only works if there are companies willing to buy and use the recycled materials. Often times, there aren’t. What’s more, many people have very distorted views of the recycling process. For large companies that don’t consider saving the environment a top priority, there isn’t a huge incentive for using recycled materials since most plastic is made from petroleum–making new plastic cheaper than recycled material. According to a study done by a team of environmental engineers at The University of Georgia, of the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste that we have produced in the last six decades, a measly 9% of it has been recycled. Recycling is a method that has the potential to dramatically reduce the amount of waste we produce. However, if major companies don’t start using more recycled material, our environment will continue to suffer. According to market research IBISWorld analyst Nate Gelmen, about six billion pounds of plastic bottles get thrown away every year. Of that number, 30% are recycled, and out of that number, one-fifth of the bottles are processed into new products.

If you drink a bottled water every day for a year, you will have created approximately 20 pounds of plastic waste. According to Ecowatch, the average American throws away around 185 pounds of plastic each year. That means that if you invest in a reusable water bottle, you can decrease the amount of waste you produce by 11%. The effort required to reduce your carbon footprint is more than majority of us are willing to put forth. We’ve been building these wasteful habits for our whole lives without ever having to deal with the consequences. We throw away our trash and never have to think about it again, but there is no such thing as away. We see the single trash bags we put on our curb, but most of us either can’t comprehend the total amount of waste we produce, or just don’t want to think about it.

We have to start thinking about it. Reducing our plastic use is the most efficient way to curb the catastrophe that awaits. Right now we need efficient, because the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports last year showed that the world needs to cut carbon dioxide emissions by at least 45 percent in 12 years to maintain a livable planet. The majority of us will be in our late 20’s, and I don’t know about you guys, but I want kids. I want to get married, I want to adopt lots of puppies and kittens. I want a law degree, and I want to live to be old and wrinkly. I know a lot of us share those desires. For those things to become a reality, we need a planet to live on. We have to act locally. You might not be able to influence the whole world, but you can control your own actions and influence the actions of the people around you. So, rethink that Propel, take the time to pack your own PB&J instead of buying an Uncrustable every day, and bring a reusable water bottle. It’s time we step up and take this pressing issue seriously.