I have always wanted to walk in the footsteps of my childhood heroes - the MythBusters. I would sit for hours in front of the Discovery Channel watching them test and experiment. I could always negotiate more screen time with my parents by arguing “but Mom, it’s educational!”
Following the path of environmental studies, I didn’t think my myth-busting dreams would come true. But boy was I wrong. The world of zero waste and circular economy is full of confusing contradictions and shady greenwashing.
The truth of recycling systems is something I was shocked by when I started uncovering the facts. I always had so much confidence that my diligent sorting was ensuring that I was keeping materials out of the landfill and out of the environment. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.
Even so, recycling can be beneficial when done properly. So for our 7 Rs of Zero Waste series, we are taking a close look at recycling and the part it plays in a zero waste future.
Myth: All materials accepted for recycling are easily recyclable.
Fact: Not all materials can be recycled easily - some are much harder than others. For example, glass is very difficult to recycle because it is heavy and can be abrasive to machinery and challenging to sort. But aluminum can be easily recycled over and over again without a loss of quality. Plastic is tricky because some types can be recycled and others are virtually impossible.
It gets even harder with textiles. For reuse in new clothing, the garment must be unwound down to the thread and then resewn. Oftentimes, textiles are recycled once to become industrial rags or insulation.
Myth: Our recycling is processed and recirculated in Canada.
Fact: Across Canada, many materials are shipped to different countries to be processed for recycling. These practices are often not closely monitored and the materials may be burned or end up back in the environment. It is hard to find accurate data on this process but estimates show that up to 70% of the recycling the US sends abroad isn’t actually recycled. China was one of the main recipients of global recycling until halting imports in 2018. Vietnam and Thailand are following suit by banning plastic recycling imports. That being said, British Columbia does have a strong recycling system and some materials are completely processed in the province.
Myth: Everything that we put in the blue bin gets recycled.
Fact: Unfortunately, not everything that gets sent to be recycled is actually recycled.
For our recycling system to work successfully, there must be an end market for the recycled materials after they have been processed. This means oftentimes only the highest quality materials are purchased and others end up in the landfill.
Contamination from food or hazardous materials is also a major problem that results in up to 25% of the waste put in recycling bins in Canada becoming non-recyclable.
Myth: Materials stay at the same level of quality after being recycled.
Fact: Reprocessing materials after their first use often results in ‘downcycling’. This means that a material has been recycled but is now of lesser quality and has limited usefulness before it will be unable to be recycled again. This often happens with plastics because it degrades through the reprocessing process.
Myth: It’s more environmentally friendly to buy something that’s easily recyclable than something reusable
Fact: While recycling is a great system, it requires a lot of energy and resources to reprocess materials - this causes greenhouse gas emissions. When you opt to use a reusable option that can be used over and over again, the associated energy and resources needed to create that item in the first place are stretched over a longer period which is more sustainable.
Myth: It’s better to put something in the recycling bin than the garbage, even if you don’t know if it can be recycled.
Fact: Only items you know are accepted by your city’s recycling system should be put into the recycling bin. Items that are not able to be recycled - like plastic bags - can clog up the recycling processing machines and result in many other items becoming unrecyclable.
Myth: Recycling is the solution to our waste problem.
Fact: Recycling is part of the solution to our waste crisis - but it is not the solution. It is a complex system that requires a lot of energy, resources and oftentimes exports waste to other countries that may not be able to process the materials. However, it works well for some materials and we should continue to improve the system where it’s working and uncover new solutions or eliminate materials that are causing problems.
Photo credit: Nudnik
With all this in mind, Tradle aims to work with clothing brands that practice ‘upcycling’ - which means to improve the quality of a material. Nudnik’s clothing is made entirely from repurposed fabrics meant for the garbage bin. GREIGE uses recycled or leftover fabrics for their new collections when possible. Simply Merino keeps all of its scraps and designs new products from their leftover wool. We are proud to play our role of circulating their amazing products between as many families as possible for a truly closed-loop system.