Does Recycling Save Energy?

Does Recycling Save Energy?

I don’t know how many hours of my life I’ve spent pulling used tissues and food scraps out of recycling bins at school. It’s a lot. I’ve lost track. I’ve been a classroom teacher for eleven years, spending most of my time in the elementary and middle grades. I care deeply about our planet and all people and all living things. So, naturally, I spent a lot of time teaching students to recycle and advocating for proper recycling at my schools. After a while, however, I learned the downsides of the global recycling system. Now I don’t think it’s worth it. Here are five reasons why you shouldn’t waste much of your energy recycling at your school.


1. Most plastic doesn’t actually get recycled.

You may have heard that less than 10% of plastic actually gets recycled. Yes, less than 10%. (To see how much plastic is produced, check out this graph showing the exponential growth of plastic around the world.) So, from the very beginning, it’s clear that this entire system is broken. Too much plastic and very little recycling.


2. Recycling takes energy.

The second reason is simple. There are emissions associated with the entire recycling process. Trucks must pick up recycling from your school, haul it away to carbon-intensive industrial facilities, and then deliver it again to its new destination. That’s a lot of emissions-- emissions that you have to take into account if your goal with recycling is to save energy. Recycling is still generally more energy-efficient than making products with new materials, but the best thing to do is just useless stuff in the first place. If you or your students want to learn more about the massive impact that transportation, manufacturing, and industrial processes have on the climate, check out this interactive graph from Our World in Data.


3. Many plastic products are downcycled into products that can never be recycled again.

In this video, Judith Enck, the president of Beyond Plastics, explains, “they rarely get recycled into the same item, like bottles to bottles. They’ve usually recycled bottles into carpets. It’s downcycled.” Some of the things you recycle only have two life cycles, not the endless loop that you or your students might imagine.


4. The recycling system is extremely confusing.

What are the little numbers on the bottom of plastic containers? Should you teach your students about them? I have taught about all of this many times before, and it simply takes so much time. It might be better to use that time to teach about the climate impacts of beef or how to decarbonize our transportation system than it is to teach about high-density polyethylene.


5. There is an environmental justice component to recycling. 

The fourth reason is all about justice. So much waste from the Global North is shipped to developing nations in the Global South. In this video, Kristy Drutman explains how the United States dumps enormous amounts of waste on the Global South, leading to human and environmental costs that Americans don’t usually think about.


6. Recycling is overemphasized as a climate solution. 

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you don’t want to place an outsized emphasis on recycling as a climate solution. If recycling is repeatedly highlighted at school, students may internalize the idea that recycling is amazing for the Earth and call it a day. That’s a damaging mindset when our climate and ecological systems are collapsing. There are far bigger fish to fry. 

In short, the global recycling system is broken. It’s imperative that we don’t treat recycling as a silver bullet to the climate crisis. 


Other Student Projects

So, what to do? Should you teach your students about recycling? My short answer is that yes, you should. Even if less than 10% of plastics get recycled, that’s still better than 0%. But don’t focus your energy on recycling.

What should you focus on instead? One of the appeals of recycling is that it presents lots of opportunities for hands-on school projects. Luckily, recycling isn’t the only hands-on way to help the environment.  There are tons of projects your students could launch that have a bigger bang for the buck than recycling.


Project 1: School Hydration Stations

How about a ban on single-use plastic in your school? That would be dealing with the disease (single-use plastic) and not managing the symptoms (the disposal systems for said plastic). To motivate your students to advocate for a ban on single-use plastic at your school, you could show them this video on plastic pollution or have them analyze this mural in Indonesia. Your students could even launch a campaign to get hydration stations at school to eliminate single-use plastic water bottles from campus.


Project 2: Meatless Mondays

Students could advocate for reducing meat consumption. They could explore this amazing interactive resource or watch this video to understand the enormous impact of animal agriculture on greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and human health. If you don’t already, your students could begin a Meatless Mondays program. And why stop there? Your students could push for mostly plant-based meals all week, like the universities in Berlin.


Project 3: No Idle Campaign and Walk & Roll Day

Students may be interested in tackling emissions from transportation. After all, why would anybody drive a car to school when they could get there in a bike bus? If your school (sadly) doesn’t have a bike bus, students could launch a no-idling campaign or organize a Walk and Roll Day (which, frankly, should be every single day).

Recycling is not worth your energy. Our students, communities, and planet will benefit far more if students pursue more impactful school projects. Should you recycle? Yes, you should. But don’t spend that much time picking food scraps out of the recycle bin. It just isn’t worth it.