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Why understanding recycling can feel so hard

Welcome to The Sustainable Fox's first blog post following our very very first ever post acknowledging the Land!

To kick off, I'm going to share the top 5 reasons why understanding recycling can seem so hard (at least in my experience) AND how to overcome them.

The list goes:

  1. Recycling seems futile

  2. Sorting categories don't make sense

  3. Recycling seems futile

  4. You keep buying garbage

  5. Recycling seems futile

If you're a very clever fox, you'll have noticed already that recycling seeming futile is actually 3/5 of the reasons why recycling might feel so hard -- at the very least "What actually happens to my recycling?" is the most commonly asked question at events.

Top down photo of four recycling bins each filled with a different category of waste.

1 - Recycling seems futile


So what does happen with your recycling? Well, unfortunately, the answer is "It's complicated". Sorry. But it's not because it's a cop out, it's actually a very complex network of exchanges, processing, buying, and selling. It's its whole own economy!

So depending on where you live, your recycling gets moved along through the market differently. Recycling as an industry isn't perfect, but global awareness and processes have shifted drastically in the last half decade to start cracking down on negligence, dumping, and shipping of low grade materials to other parts of the world.

Overcoming it:

Research. Combat the futility with information!

Your local recycling collector might have more information about where your recycling goes available than you expect! If not, contact them to ask and push for the transparency your community deserves.

Recycle BC, who manages recycling where I do most of my work, is quite forthcoming with this information, check it out here:

BC's recycling programs are better than many in North America, with Recycle BC claiming upward of 90% of blue bin contents actually end up recycled. Plastics are often recycled AND find end markets in Metro Vancouver, glass stays in BC, metal (which is highly recyclable) finds markets in BC, Ontario, and the States... the list goes on. So if you live in BC, consider your preliminary research done for you!

2 - Sorting categories don't make sense


This can be particularly relevant if you've recently moved from one community (or even neighbourhood, nay building!) to another, or if your local recycling rules have changed recently. Pizza boxes come to mind as being a local item that inspires panic: does it go in the compost or the recycling? In Victoria, the answer is either (food residue belongs in the compost but the paper fibers are of more value in the recycling).

Within BC there are fairly clear, province wide guidelines for what can or can't be recycled -- what's less clear is why we mix some materials together but not others, and why some communities might have more specific sorting requirements than most.

Overcoming it:

Again, research, and also practice.

Know that depending on where you live, the nearest sorting facility might have newer or older technology helping the humans who sort your recycling and this can be a big factor in how thoroughly mixed up materials can be sorted. Researching your local regulations is always a smart place to start!

Something you might learn along the way is that you've been "wish-cycling" or putting stuff in the recycling that we wish was recyclable but is not... or not curbside at least! Don't be discouraged!

The next step is learning about your local transfer station or material depot site. For me personally, my first trip to a recycling depot drastically demystified how to fill my curbside blue bin and ended my wish-cycling flat out. What's more is the folks working at these facilities are generally experts on the local regulations, so if you're unsure of something you can ask a person directly.

A few basic tenets you can follow though:

  • paper/cardboard is seperate from everything else

  • glass is seperate from everything else

  • paper cups are more like milk/soup cartons than paper (normally sorted with plastics)

  • plastic, metal, and carton are commonly collected together because most sorting facilities have technology which can efficiently tell them apart

  • if it's a plasticky bag or bag-like (Ziplocs, foil chip bags, candy wrappers...) it SHOULD NOT GO IN YOUR BLUE BIN -- but can be recycled if depot facilities exist in your area

3 - Recycling seems futile (pt 2)


Because recycling is only part of the solution. It's not even high on the hierarchy of R's, which I tend to list as: Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Repair, Rethink... then Recycle.

Recycling has an important role to play in the truly sustainable circular economy of our future, but not so large a role as waste reduction, which we can and should also practice now (along with all the other Rs). When recycling, with all it's growing pains, is posited as a waste of time and energy, it takes for granted the enormous effort that has been put in -- from the grassroots to the industrial level -- to find viable solutions for our waste and can be discouraging for folks tentative in their own recycling practice.

Overcoming it:

Diversify your environmental efforts.

Focus less on recycling and more on the other R's. In fact, could you make an effort to not recycle for a while? Don't use the garbage instead, rather take a moment to consider if you can do something else with the thing before recycling it.

4 - You keep buying garbage


Because stuff is cute or cool, covered in packaging, and well marketed... it's a problem of our own construction. We want our stuff, we want it now, and we want it cheap. I hate to be the one to break it to you but this isn't a sustainable paradigm to maintain.

As you gain interest in recycling better, maybe you start noticing more of your own waste, you're going to want to use the garbage can less (this is where the wish-cycling I mentioned earlier starts). The trouble is that you haven't matched your purchasing values with your waste values yet -- until this is resolved, recycling will remain ancillary to garbage.

Overcoming it:

Practice waste-aware conscious consumerism.

Actively notice the packaging you're buying with a purchase, favour multi-use dishware and containers, invest in durable goods made from natural materials when possible. Try to avoid breakable plastic toys/trinkets, paper lined plastic or foil (like some food packaging), and excessive packaging generally.

5 - Recycling seems futile (pt 3)


"Because I'm just one person and my recycling habits don't really matter..." is the hardest to combat because it's based in a reality I don't adhere to. It suggests a reality where we do things only if they benefit ourselves rather than our community, where we don't value contributions of the small or seemingly weak, where we spend more time spying on our neighbours than interrogating ourselves...

You matter -- I think -- which means your actions matter, which means your recycling habits matter. What is up for debate is how much they matter as an expression of your energy input and if your effort would be better spent elsewhere in service of reducing your waste.

For example, if recycling the single use coffee cup seems futile to you, then put your energy into bringing a reusable cup and entirely cut out the waste instead!

Overcoming it:

Reframe. Learn a new story.

Recycling seems futile because it's part of your awareness in that way, but it doesn't have to be! We've made huge advancements in recycling technology in the last several years and the next decade is sure to bring a whole new paradigm to the way we manage our waste; could that be your new story?

Or, instead of counting the futility of how many cups you sent for recycling this week, start keeping track of single use cups you didn't use... ask your local coffee shop how many cups come in a box and start keeping track of how many boxes of cups no longer needed to be produced for you to enjoy your bevvy (if you hit the coffee shop often you could save a whole box over a year)!

Reframe yourself as powerful, as a leader, as able to make change... and you just might.

With love,


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