Does Recycling Give Us An Excuse To Over-Consume?


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Just because it is recyclable, doesn’t mean it’s a good thing to buy…especially if you don’t need it. Does the concept of recyclability give some an excuse to over-consume? Even if something is recyclable, it still has to be designed, made, shipped, consumed, shipped to a facility, recycled, and transformed into something else – that’s a lot of energy and resources still being used for something that could be, in a roundabout way, encouraging some to buy more than they need in life and thinking that it’s OK because the item in question can be recycled. It’s something I have been wondering about for some time now, and I am not sure there is a good way to find out if it’s true.

The key to being truly eco-friendly is to only buy what you need to live; but we all know that everyone also buys some things that they want. And there really isn’t anything inherently wrong with that, as we are human and we want nice things in our lives. But it’s when people buy way more than they need, using more than their fair share of resources, that it can have a negative effect on the rest of us. However, could this new focus on recycling everything actually be increasing our consumption of “stuff”, just because it is supposedly recyclable in the end? Everything from plates to electronics to houses to cars is being marketed as “green” and “recyclable”…so are we buying more of it because it feels OK to do so?

Photo by Dano

An amazing amount of effort and raw materials goes into everything in our society, so cutting down on consumption goes a lot further in cleaning up our world than recycling does. I am not saying that recycling is bad; in fact, I wish more of our “stuff” could be recycled. But I do worry that the mass-marketed green movement is encouraging some people to consume even more in the name of being eco-friendly. What do you think?

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  1. I don’t have a feel for whether recyclability influences people’s buying habits and encourages them to feel good about buying. However, I do think that there is much too much consumption of electronics. I’m not personally in favor of things like the Kindle and iPhone. I don’t think people are aware enough of the environmental costs of producing electronic gadgets and I hate that they are basically highly consumable and only in use for a very few years.

  2. Yes it does. It’s the ubiquitous green wash. It’s important to do but if packaging were reused instead of recycled we’d stay more connected to our waste and consumption. The recycle bin just makes more people feel better about throwing trash away. IMHO

  3. I’ve wondered the same thing and think you’re probably right. We can’t buy our way out of this problem…it’s about making informed choices with the larger picture in mind. That said, I’m sure I’m as guilty as anyone else. All we can do is our best, though, right?

  4. I find that many people think of themselves as environmentalists because they put an enviro license plate on their car or because they are recycling. People forget that it’s the third part – reduce, reuse than recycle.

  5. A perfectly timed post as I was thinking about this yesterday as I put out my trash. Three small bags of trash (two of them cat litter) and a large bin full of recycling. I had just cleared out a lot of cardboard boxes that were no longer useful, but still, it was a lot. We have reduced but we need to do it further, especially with some plastic that is downcycled rather than recycled.

  6. With education we hope we can make that difference and reduce the consumption/waste before it even gets to the recycling bin!

  7. I had be thinking about this as I’m getting ready to relocate in a few months and getting rid of a lot of items I don’t want to take with me. Most of these things I am able to sell or give away, but for the broken cell phones and antiquated books (i.e. Windows ’95) etc, I am at a loss. We have a recycling facility that takes electronics and totally unusable books, but wonder if there is a better way to prevent the waste in the first place.

  8. Great post. It is all too easy to forget that recycling should be the last step when we’ve exhausted our ability to reuse (or not buy it at all). Plastic water bottles are a perfect example! Yes…it’s better to recycle them than to throw them away, but it’s even better not to buy them in the first place.

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