Is Recycling the Answer to Holiday Waste?

BlogHer Original Post

Actually, no. While recycling is certainly important -- we do it in our home -- it's not enough, and here are a few reasons why:

Recycling is a business.

Like any business, recycling relies on markets to survive. Do you know what happens to the metal, glass, paper and plastic you put into your recycle bin? After sorting at your community's recycling center, it is sold to companies that do the actual recycling, breaking down the materials and incorporating them into new products. But what happens if no one wants to buy the stuff we toss in the bin?

A NY Times article last year reported that much of our community recycling was piling up in warehouses or ending up in landfills, due to the economic downturn and lack of demand from China, the biggest export market for recyclables from the United States.

Recycling costs communities money.

According to an L.A. Times article last month, recycling centers across California are shutting down in response to tough economic times. The state has been forced to borrow from beverage container recycling funds in an effort to balance the budget. Yet manufacturers of disposable containers continue to produce this wasteful packaging, relying on taxpayers and governments to fund recycling programs instead of taking responsibility themselves.

Our recycling may simply create pollution in other parts of the world.

This heartbreaking video released by Britain's Sky News reveals that recycling workers in China have been subjected to toxic conditions due to lack of worker safeguards.

The entire town of Lian Jiao, China had basically become a toxic waste dump, with residents and children exposed to fumes from melting plastics and rivers contaminated with recycling chemicals. Since this exposé, the facilities have been shut down. But what about other cities overseas that receive our discards?

A chasing arrows symbol does not mean the material is actually recyclable.

That recycling symbol on the bottom of a container does not necessarily mean the item can be recycled in your area. Some cities collect only narrow-necked bottles. Others collect only #1 or #2. What's more, some cities accept every kind of plastic, but then sort through it and send to the landfill anything for which there is no market. Do you know what happens to all the materials your city collects? Most do not want plastic bags in the recycling bin because they can seriously interfere with the sorting machines (I’ve witnessed this problem first-hand). Here are a few other items that routinely cause these machines to jam. These photos were taken at the Davis Street Recycling Center in San Leandro, California.

Here is a list of other materials that people have actually dropped in their recycle bins that can wrap around the machine and cause it to jam: chains, Christmas lights, clothing, copper tubing, cords from electronic devices, extension cords, tarps and other plastic film, metal hangers, sheets, string, wading pools (yep, it’s on the list!), wires. Do not put these items in your recycling bin.

Plastics are generally downcycled rather than truly recycled.

Plastic containers, for example, are not recycled into new containers but into other products like lumber or outdoor furniture. Even the plastic yogurt containers recycled by responsible companies like Preserve into toothbrushes and cutting boards are actually downcycled, since the manufacturers of the yogurt containers continue to extract virgin materials for their disposable products.

So what's the solution?

As I mentioned in my Thanksgiving post,

between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, Americans generate 25 percent more waste per week than during the rest of the year. This creates an additional 1.2 million tons per week, or an extra 6 million tons, for the holiday season.

We can stem the tide of holiday waste by following the first two R's in the zero waste mantra: Reduce and Reuse. Here are a few ideas:

1) Instead of buying new wrapping paper, reuse paper and ribbons from prior years or create cloth gift bags that can easily be reused year after year. Linda Anderson from Citizen Green has made some cute ones this year. And @SproutSoup tweets that she is giving stainless steel lunch containers full of candy this year. Two gifts in one.

2) Choose gifts that are sold in as little disposable packaging as possible. Often, the producers of handmade gifts, like those on, will happily leave off the packaging. Be sure and make that request. Check out Amazon's frustration-free packaging program. Buy from local holiday craft fairs and refuse the bags and wrapping that might be offered. Bring your own bags while shopping. Yes, you can even bring your own bags to department stores. Last week, I bought a stainless steel pot from Macy's and carried it out in my reusable bag after choosing a pot that came with minimal packaging.

3) Leave your packaging behind. Send a message to store owners that you don't want excess packaging. Blogger Anna Cummins of Bring Your Own, has created the Leave Your Packaging Behind Facebook campaign urging consumers remove packaging right there are the store and leave it on the counter, explaining to store personnel why you'd like them to stock merchandise with less packaging. Or send your packaging back to manufacturers with a letter requesting less packaging in the future.

4) Give gifts of experiences rather than objects. A membership to a favorite museum or zoo, for example. A subscription to a theater. Movie tickets. Restaurant gift certificates. The possibilities are endless and virtually waste-free.

5) Purchase fewer, more personal and meaningful gifts. Doing this will not only cut down on packaging waste but will also save the materials used to manufacture so much stuff in the first place.

6) Ask yourself it you really need it. Before buying new holiday decorations and disposable tableware, ask yourself if those things will really make the season more special or just add to the mountains of waste created each year. (How many Santa figurines or snowman decorations does one actually need?) Then, reuse decorations from last year, make new ones with recycled materials, and opt for durable tableware instead of disposable.

7) Support companies that responsibly deal with their own waste. If you must buy electronics, for example, patronize a company with a closed-loop recycling system. Closed-loop means that they are not shipping their "recycling" overseas to be downcycled into other unnecessary products but are recycling the materials themselves into similar goods. HP, for example, combines its ink cartridges with used plastic bottles to manufacture new HP computers and cartridges.

Here are a few more bloggers writing about recycling and cutting waste:

Anna from Greentalk asks, "Shouldn’t America Recycles Day Be Called America Reduce or Reuse Day?"

Kathryn Robbins from Tainted Green offers more suggestions for wrapping gifts and explains why not all holiday paper is recyclable.

Sheba Wheeler from the Home Girls Blog provides a whole list of holiday waste reduction tips, including sending e-cards, canceling unnecessary catalogs, and reusing shipping materials when gifts are mailed.

Remember, recycling is the last of the 3 R's. Make reducing waste a new family tradition. What ways are you cutting down on waste this holiday season?



Beth Terry writes about finding creative ways to reduce her plastic consumption and plastic waste at Fake Plastic Fish and encourages others to join the fun. We only have one planet. Let's enjoy it instead of polluting it with plastic!

Beth Terry


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