What “recyclable,” “recycled,” and “compostable” mean

July 11, 2020 by Joshua
in Nature

Most of the pollution in a product happens upstream of what you buy or use. Anything single-use wastes resources before you handle it. Recycling barely reduces a thing’s waste relative to not using it.

Likewise, once something is made, especially plastic, it will exist for a long time. Future generations will have to deal with it. The more you reduce, the more you realize you don’t need things.

Why do places label their unnecessary packaging recyclable and reusable so prominently? Because people will buy. You think Trader Joe’s hadn’t market researched labeling their bags like below?

Trader Joe’s business model is based on packaging things. Operationally, it makes them money by reducing the need for people. From a human perspective, the business is designed to make a lot of waste—plastic bottles, bags, wrapping, and so on.

Labeling their garbage as reusable or recyclable leads people to buy more. When I see people’s carts at Trader Joe’s, they’re overrun with plastic. People lived for hundreds of thousands of years without plastic and many other accouterments of modern life.

We need few things that didn’t exist at the dawn of our species.

Once we see how most recycling serves the goal of increasing consumption, we realize that what works is stopping manufacturing things that could be recycled. Nearly all the plastic we’ve every created still exists. Recycling and reusing it without stopping creating more only shuffles it around. Metal and other materials consume energy and other materials in their processes.

Bea Johnson described what I’m saying in her TEDx talk, Zero Waste is not recycling more, but less:

My handy dictionary for these terms

My handy dictionary definitions for what the terms mean:

  • “Compostable” – think “it’s garbage”
  • “Recyclable” – think “it’s garbage”
  • “Recycled” – think: “it’s garbage”

and you’ll almost certainly be right. You don’t need to buy nearly any packaged things. Going without will probably improve your life. It may seem hard, but you can do it.

The dictionary is simple when you get it. Manufacturers, retailers, and so on are trying to motivate you to buy more without taking responsibility for the waste. You can tell because you probably feel like you’re not polluting when you get the stuff. You probably feel the motivation to buy more, or at least not stop buying.

I recommend The Story of Stuff videos for more background. Actually, I recommend challenging yourself to go a week or so with no packaged food. It worked for me and I didn’t know how to start.

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