The blog formerly known as   Fake Plastic Fish

December 16, 2009

Is Recycling the Answer to Holiday Waste?

Actually, no. Recycling is certainly important. We do it in our home. But 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 that 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 was released by Britain’s Sky News, reveals that recycling workers in China and other Asian countries are subject 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 expose, the facilities have been shut down. But what about other areas of the world where we send 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. 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 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.

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?

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 kitchenware 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 when requested. 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 checking to make sure there was no plastic or other non-recyclable packaging inside the box.

3) Leave your packaging behind. Send a message to store owners that you don’t want excess packaging. 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 if 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 their own 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?

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?

You might also enjoy...

0 0 votes
Article Rating
Notify of
oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
13 years ago

Great post, Beth.

Not to imply that recycling is bad or that it shouldn’t be encouraged but as one who manages a privately owned recycling center for a living and owns a search engine devoted to private recyclers I can only add that when we recycle we are admitting that we have in-fact failed to find a better way to resolve the very problems we’ve created.

Also, while it is true that privately owned retail recycling centers aren’t perfect, our record for not sending what we take in to landfills remains far better than municipally funded recycling centers. You see, we pay for and then resell recyclables and anything we send to a landfill represents lost profits. Municipally funded recyclers, private or public can always recoup their losses from the taxpayers thereby profiting from landfilling.

13 years ago

I just sent a message to the city streets and sanitation director to find out if the company that handles our recycling is allowed to simply dump it as garbage.

I’ve noticed that the content of recycling bins has moved away from the items that are stated to be recyclable to all manner of trash, including the items you showed that foul separation equipment. Yet the recycling company and the city have done not one thing to enforce the content requirements, not even a mention of the problem by either one in newsletters or the local paper.

Why would any recycling company gladly accept anything rather than restrict collection to the things that can truly be recycled? It so happens that the company we use is ALSO a garbage hauler. Isn’t that interesting?

Residents here pay for recycling. What is earned from the recyclables is not enough to cover the cost of the recycling program. So the recycling company gets money from us regardless of what it does with the stuff it collects. Why shouldn’t the recycling company shut down its materials reprocessing facility and just haul the stuff to the landfill? They might make more money that way so why not?

In other words, the whole program could be a fraud – people diligently recycle only to have the material dumped anyway. I’m investigating.

Beth Terry
13 years ago

Hi, Laura. Let me clarify. What I mean by “downcycling” is that the loop is never closed, so it’s not an example of true recycling. And that is the problem with plastics. That Trex board will end up in the landfill when it is worn out, and but for a few exceptions, that’s what will happen to all other “recycled” plastic.

Glass and metal, on the other hand, can be recycled over and over again.

We do recycle in our home and try to buy products that contain recycled content. I just don’t think that recycling is a sustainable solution to the plastic problem because it does nothing to stem the production of new disposable plastic.

The fact that plastic bottles cannot be recycled into new plastic bottles is an argument against producing them in the first place, isn’t it?

13 years ago

I agree that reducing and reusing come before recycling, but I don’t agree with all the points you made about recycling. My main isssue is that you consider recycled bottles turned into trex (plastic wood) as downcycling – I have always considered this upcycling because the end product is more valuable than the initial product. Same goes for fleece items made from recycled materials and Preserve products as well. True that companies need to use virgin material to make new plastic bottles, but a recycling center manager in Durham, NC told me this was because of health codes that did not allow post-consumer recycled plastics in food containers (plastics do not truly melt to be remade into new objects, like glass or metal, which is the reason). I haven’t checked this out, but it makes sense to me. And again, I completely agree that we need to reduce our consumption and reuse materials, but I am also a true believer in recycling and try to close the loop myself by buying items made with a high recycled content.

zsa zsa
13 years ago

Last year I started wrapping my presents in old newspapers and pages from old magazines. I’m doing it again this year, and I’ve asked family members to do the same. Some of them still love buying and using wrapping paper, so I guess it will take a while for me to really convince them to minimize that.

Also, I’ve been diligently bringing my reusable bag whenever I hit the mall and refusing plastic packaging whenever I can. Small steps, but hopefully, I can get family and friends to follow too. =)

Great article, wonderful tips!

13 years ago

I have a friend who scouts out colorful kitchen towels on sale during the year, and wraps presents in them. Often using raffia and things like Rosemary twigs or pine cones for decoration. Pretty and useful.

13 years ago

My family is so cheap, we have always reused gift bags and boxes.

The first year my stepdad was part of the family, he wrote everyone’s name in MARKER on the gift bags and TAPED THEM SHUT! Imagine the horror at making the gift bags non-reusable :)

My partner’s family, not so much. But I am just learning to live with his relationship to them.

13 years ago

giving experience gifts is such a great idea

13 years ago

I reuse bows, ribbons, boxes and bags. Gifts that aren’t easy to wrap get put in bags usually. Other items do get wrapped in wrapping paper. Each year the reusables are pulled from the wrapping garbage and put back into our box of Christmas wrapping. I have to say that it takes years for a tube of wrapping paper to be used up. When the kids arrived two years ago, I bought 3 tubes of kid paper for them. I haven’t bought another tube since then – kid or adult.

I use a few gift tags for small items but most of my gift tags are made from Christmas cards. My co-workers (and my company) know that I collect Christmas cards so I get a batch of Christmas cards every year. I take off the back with the message and signatures and use the picture as the gift tag. So before they are thrown out, I use them at least one more time!

13 years ago

An amazing gift is the book “Cradle to Cradle Remaking the Way We Make Things” You will know details about the dark side of recycling plastic, and more. But the message of the book is THERE ARE HEALTHIER WAYS TO MAKE THINGS !!!

13 years ago

I am committed to not buying new gift wrapping materials, and re-using what we already have. So many people give us gift bags that this is not a problem at all. I also make purchases with packaging in mind, and am making some of my gifts this holiday season. Reducing is the best way that I know of to reduce my footprint, and so that’s what I’m striving for. I will admit, though, my kids would really prefer if I were doing the opposite.

Condo Blues
13 years ago

Just like my mother and my grandmother I have a box of boxes the I use, replenish from the ones I get gifts in each year and reuse for next gift giving occasion. We even have a silly tradition of guessing who gets their gift wrapped in a printed Higbee’s box (the store from the movie A Christmas Story.) The person who gets a gift in The Box doesn’t get anything accept accolades. We celebrate reuse as part of our holiday, always have back in the days when green was just a color :)

I also have a box of gift wrap, ribbon, bows, gift bags etc. that I use, replenish with what receive and can reuse, and reuse for the next gift giving occasion. I can wrap a Martha Stewart looking gift with reused materials in no time!

Anna@Green Talk
13 years ago

Thanks Beth for explaining why recycling is not always the best alternative. People just toss anything in the recycling bins. Many times I have taken out items that can’t be recycled at the town and taken to where they could be.

Sometime great stuff is in the garbage or recycling bins.

We need to send a message that how are products are packaged are important too. I wrote a post about organic apples wrapped in plastic and why I would not let my husband buy them.

Since your article a year ago, I wrap my teacher gifts in the simpliest wrapping. Great article (as always…)

13 years ago

Repair is one of my favourite Rs.
I would like someone to repair my quilts or clothes for Christmas or my birthday!

13 years ago

This year I bought martin, my ISO (Insignifacant other) A Guitar. Froma pawn shop. It came with a case. I am giving one og my friends who brews his own beer- a Turkey fryer Burner, i happned to already own(don’t need two anymore) for him to boil his vat of beer and so he doesn’t borrow mine. Two big gifts and no plastic! So I guess my point is Buy it used, Give something old- it won’t mean any less to the recipient! (If it does then get new friends)

Holly Musgrove
13 years ago

I love to regift, and if a good friend has given me the gift that I want to regift, I explain why I’m regifting, and they are always delighted that their gift is going to a new home. But of course, I usually get great gifts from close friends because they know me so well, so the ones that usually get regifted are from far away relatives that mean well but don’t always know me well enough to get me something I love. Regifting is great, especially if you adopt a family for the holidays. I always save up stuff I’m not crazy about that I receive throughout the year and combine these items with the family’s christmas list.

Also, I create name tags using cookie cutters as stencils from the holiday cards we receive in the mail every year. A hole punch and bit of string and there you have it! I like to reuse gift bags, and also to buy brown kraft paper (or reuse brown paper bags) to wrap presents in and use leftover ribbon or reuse ribbon from previously received presents to decorate. It’s possible to turn just about anything into something to keep from buying new stuff.

Thanks for the great site. I love it!