Trash, recycling and compost bins are all across campus. Like many others, I dutifully separate apple cores, bags of chips and bits of cardboard into their appropriate compartments. Recycling is inarguably better than not recycling — but recycling also isn’t an unmitigated good. 

Have you ever seen an oily pizza box in the recycling bin? New York Times journalist Livia Albeck-Ripka recently coined the term “aspirational recycling” to refer to people who recycle non-recyclable waste in order to feel better about their bad habits.  In its most egregious forms, aspirational recycling can be downright harmful. I’m sure you’ve seen containers with food and liquid in recycling bins; this can contaminate items around it and send the whole load to the landfill.

Single-use coffee cups are another, more insidious kind of aspirational recycling. Recently I was surprised to learn that most types of disposable coffee cups are treated by recycling plants as trash due to the polyethylene coating on the inside of the cup. If this were more widely known, perhaps consumers would be more apt to use a thermos; as it is, the recycling bin makes people feel better about their wasteful consumption habits.

Almost everyone knows the phrase “reduce, reuse, recycle.” Perhaps slightly less well known is that the order of these terms is intentional. Reducing the amount of waste you produce is the best, followed by reusing potential waste items, followed by recycling. In the contest between recycling disposable plastic water bottles or using a reusable bottle, the reusable bottle wins every time. Recycling, however, is promoted much more heavily than either reducing or reusing. 

I’m looking at a disposable water bottle right now; it holds just 299 mL of water, and is made of plastic that will not break down for 1,000 years. Think about it: if this water bottle existed back when the bubonic plague killed one third of Europe, in the year 2019 it would still have centuries left before it decays. The water bottle is emblazoned with a cheerful green leaf and a “recyclable” symbol. Nowhere on it does it suggest not buying needless plastic goods. Now, I fully acknowledge that since this particular water bottle already exists, recycling it is the best thing to do. But the better thing would be for it to never have existed in the first place. The tiny sense of satisfaction and virtue that recycling a water bottle gives us is misleading — and it’s a feeling that disposable water bottle companies are no doubt happy to promote. 

This leads to another related issue involving recycling, which is the extent to which our consumerist society emphasizes environmentalism at the individual level, when in reality both individual and corporate environmental concern are vital to solving our long-term problems. Proclaiming a product recyclable can be a useful way for manufacturers to promote an image of their company as being environmentally conscious, while neglecting to take action in ways that could be even more beneficial, such as reducing the amount of materials used to make their product or discontinuing the production of unnecessarily wasteful items. 

In the increasingly urgent effort to reduce humanity’s impact on the environment, actions of the individual — turning off the light when you exit a room, taking shorter showers — pale in comparison to the kinds of actions large corporations could take. Here’s a sickening statistic to brighten your day: a CDP study found that 100 companies are responsible for 71 percent of global emissions. Individual actions like carpooling is a great way to reduce your carbon footprint, but so is asserting your political power in order to bring about governments more willing to regulate industry. For obvious reasons, environmental messages put out by large corporations are more likely to emphasize recycling rather than encourage consumers to push for regulation.  

This, of course, doesn’t mean that individual actions are meaningless. Every little bit helps, and when large groups of people make minor adjustments to their everyday behaviors, great things can happen. Case in point: each year Americans recycle or compost 87 million tons of material. But it is also important to not pretend that huge issues like climate change or pollution can be solved solely by encouraging personal responsibility among consumers; large-scale political solutions are vital.