By: Dominick Burns
John is a teenager in his community who is very environmentally conscious. When reading about the climate crisis, John starts to realize the direness of the situation. Not wanting to sit by and do nothing while the planet suffers, he decides to start a recycling club at his high school. He gathers a group of friends, finds further recruits among his classmates, and finally goes to the administration to set up the club. Every Friday, John and his pals gather the recyclables from around his school and send them off to a recycling plant nearby. John and the club start strong, and before long, they are one of the largest and most engaged clubs on campus. They’re involved in setting up recycling bins, collecting paper from classrooms, plastics from the cafeteria, and are a part of various other initiatives to cement recycling as a regular part of school life. John is proud of the work he’s put into this project, and he starts to think that if maybe everyone starts to recycle as extensively and widely as he has, they could start to make a real impact in the fight against climate change. He is optimistic in his thinking, but unfortunately, he is wrong.
When you ask people about the action they could personally take to help fight climate change and the environment, recycling is usually one of the first things out of people’s mouths. This instinct isn’t wrong; it certainly is beneficial to take better care of your communities and their waste, but examining recycling can show that the question itself is based on a false assumption. The actions you can take to fight climate change are much bigger than any personal choices or actions you can do solely as an individual. We must recognize that climate change is a problem that goes far beyond ourselves and our respective lens through which we see the whole planet. Recycling as an issue exemplifies how we need to build on ecological awareness and search for ways to create change in the larger system itself.
Recycling can benefit you personally and can create greater bonds between yourself and greater ecological consciousness. John took the first step in substantive climate action by just starting to do something about it. By recycling, John began changing how he viewed the greater world. When engaging in activism, you start to grasp that the impact of your actions affects the greater world outside of your home. Although the impacts may not be seen, you are consciously choosing to recognize that you play a role in the ecosystem and its greater trends. The impact of your recycling may be negligible but your way of thinking spreads to other areas of your life, as it did with John and his club. This increases the cohesion of the greater group and expands ecological thought. By beginning to change minds about people’s places in the greater environment, you can help spread the awareness that’s needed to make actual substantive impacts on climate policy and action on a larger scale.
Recycling doesn’t scale as a solution to climate change. When just looking at paper recycling, there’s a “lack of evidence regarding the technical feasibility and environmental benefits” (van Ewijk). Researchers have found more recycling does not substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is because the recycling process of this paper and pulp is still powered by fossil fuels and the electrical grid. To see the largest reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, we need to switch “to low-carbon energy sources” (van Ewijk). In other recycling materials, these findings may be similar because recycling facilities are themselves primarily powered by fossil fuels. We should cooperate internationally to decarbonize our energy production. When we look at recycling at a global level, its local and more visible benefits do not translate.
Instead of recycling, we should fight for systemic changes instead of burdening ourselves with the false notion that individual choices can replace the burden of systemic failures. We must disentangle ourselves from the idea that an individual’s carbon footprint or what you specifically can do to fight climate change is going to solve the problem. It deflects from the responsibilities of the major global polluters, corporations, and their actions. We should focus instead on building ecological awareness so that individuals are more concerned with how they can recognize and begin to dismantle these larger institutional contributions to climate change through collective state action and regulation.
We should start by investing further in green energy and taking more robust steps in decarbonizing our energy production by switching to solar and wind solutions. We need to change the understanding of the climate crisis to think in terms of the very underlying process that provides us all with the power we use every day. This change also necessitates coming into conflict with the profit motives of the large energy companies that we have granted monopolies over our energy production in the United States. Currently, fossil fuels are very profitable. The government should be making the decisions about the public resources that we all need without having to navigate the energy industry.
Overall, recycling may be beneficial but not significant in the larger fight to decrease carbon emissions. We must look at the energy systems that support all of the global economy to solve global issues. We need to shift the conversation away from what individuals should be doing and instead focus on the concrete steps we need to achieve collectively to start to make progress in fighting climate change.
- Bergsma, E., Gupta, J., & Jong, P. Does individual responsibility increase the adaptive capacity of society? The case of local water management in the Netherlands, Resources, Conservation and Recycling, Volume 64, 2012, Pages 13-22, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.resconrec.2012.03.006.
- Talkington, D. (2007). Recycle Bottles and Cans Ad (Hdr). Flickr.
- van Ewijk, S., Stegemann, J.A. & Ekins, P. Limited climate benefits of global recycling of pulp and paper. Nat Sustain 4, 180–187 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41893-020-00624-z