General ramblings

Why I think we should all recycle LESS for Recycle Week

I’m kind of running and ducking as I write this.
It feels wrong to be advocating recycling less. And especially during Recycle Week, when I feel like I should really be championing recycling and encouraging everyone to recycle as much as they can. And don’t get me wrong. I am a big supporter of recycling, and an advocate of recycling. But only if we’ve explored all the other options in the ‘Waste Hierarchy’ first.
Let me explain.
A Waste Hierarchy sounds like a phenomenally dull thing and the kind of phrase that should only ever be uttered at waste conferences (I am assured there are such things), but actually it’s pretty neat, and it makes perfect sense.
The Waste Hierarchy is something we were taught as kids (even those of us who went to school in the ’80’s). And I can guarantee you know it – hands up if you remember Bob the Builder and his gang of uber-efficient talking machines shouting “Reduce, Re-use, Recycle”? Well, that’s it. That’s the Waste Hierarchy. Only now it’s got bigger.
The 3R’s have been expanded to 5 (or even 6 or 7 depending on who you ask):


And whether you subscribe to the 3, 5, 6 or 7 R’s you can see that Recycle actually comes towards the end, or even at the end, of the hierarchy.
Meaning that yes, we should all recycle, but we should all be doing all of those other things (Refusing, Reducing, and Re-using) first. Before we even think about recycling.

For a long time (I’m looking at you 1990’s) all that sustainability was was pretty much recycling. If you were doing your recycling, you were a bona fide eco-hero.
But now the message is slowly filtering down that maybe there is more to living lightly than sorting our rubbish into different bins.
I wrote about this during the Summer when the latest episode of Hugh’s War on Waste hit our TV screens, and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall declared ‘war’ on our takeaway coffee cups, which is turns out aren’t recyclable. Whilst applauding him for getting the mainstream broadcasters to even think about showcasing waste on primetime, I wanted to make the point that what we should all be aiming for is not recyclable cups, but for us all to be using re-usable cups (or even drinking less takeout coffee…).

Recycling is not a cure all for the sheer excess of our consumption.
It takes energy (i.e. fossil fuels) to transport, sort, and clean our items for recycling. And not wanting to seem like some kind of English language pedant, more often than not, items are ‘downcycled’ rather than ‘recycled’. I think most of think that recycling a plastic water bottle means that more plastic water bottles can be made from that same plastic. They can’t. I’ll be totally honest and say that the details of the physics loses me a little but basically food grade plastic cannot be melted down and used again to make food grade plastic. It is usually shredded up and used in things like park benches, or even fleeces. Which sounds great, and has to better than using ‘virgin plastic’ to make these things. But then I read articles like this one here about a report from Patagonia which show that their fleece jackets made from recycled plastic are actually shedding thousands of tiny micro-particles into our water systems each time we wash them. Suddenly recycling plastic bottles into clothes doesn’t seem like such a brilliant idea after all 🙁
Man, this whole sustainability thing can be really tricky sometimes.

What I’m trying to say is, Yes recycle the things you can recycle. Sort out your rubbish and put your kerbside recycling out. You can even go one step further and save up the recyclables that your local council don’t collect at the kerbside and take them down to your local recycling centre next time you visit. And always have recycling at the back of your mind when you are out shopping – pasta in a recyclable cardboard packet (does anyone know of one? I’m really struggling to find one) is a far better choice than pasta in a non recyclable plastic bag.
BUT instead of seeing recycling as ‘job done’ and feeling like we’ve done our bit to save the planet, I think we should all be looking a little bit deeper than that.
We should be looking to Refuse, Reduce and Re-use before we Recycle.
Refusing to buy the things we don’t need – being more thoughtful and deliberate about the things we buy.
Reducing our demand for things – do we really need to upgrade our phones just because Apple/Samsung/insert other name here have released a new version?
Re-using the things we already have. I would include Repair in this category as well, so it’s also about fixing and cherishing the things we already have.

So this Recycle Week, yes make sure you are recycling all the things that you can (check out the guides on the official Recycle Week site) but see that as the start point of a more sustainable life, not the end.

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  • Reply Karen December 29, 2016 at 10:35 pm

    I was going to mention Brailla pasta to you, but noticed someone had already. I was about to start bulk making and freezing when I also discovered you can buy pasta in boxes (I also have two small boys, a live without pasta might be a step too far). However a quick google of the Barilla company doesn’t offer pleasing results! Not sure I can ignore one moral question mark over the pursuit of my zero waste goal? As you say it is a tricky business! Back to bulk making and freezing pasta!

    Thank you so much for your blog, I am an avid follower of Bea Johnson, but recently found a link to your blog via The Rubbish Diet. Discovering we lived in the same County makes your blog so much more relevant, I don’t feel so alone in my pursuit of a zero waste life! Thank you.

    • Reply Jen January 4, 2017 at 11:01 am

      Hi Karen
      Lovely to have a fellow Wiltshire type reading the blog, thank you for your comment!
      How do you get on with freezing pasta? I managed to get a pasta maker on Freecycle but have yet to pluck up the courage to start experimenting!

      • Reply Karen Mawson January 4, 2017 at 8:41 pm

        I dragged the dusty pasta maker from the back of my Mum’s kitchen cupboard, we used to make loads. Now the boys are back at school I can find a quiet afternoon, I’ll let you know how I get on!

        • Reply Jen January 4, 2017 at 8:48 pm

          Please do Karen!

  • Reply Rosie (@greenrosielife) November 28, 2016 at 1:09 pm

    I totally agree with this – recycling is not the solution that allows us to keep buying – we need to reduce how much we consume whether it is recyclable or not.

  • Reply Accusatory frocks | mouthfulofpins October 8, 2016 at 11:48 am

    […] probably destined to be recycled into home insulation. Better than going to landfill, sure, but this post on recycling less struck a chord with me – if I can find a use for an old top myself, then I’m a) […]

  • Reply andy nagelin October 1, 2016 at 12:33 pm

    Reducing the amount that we recycle is best. Many of us use ceramic mugs and water bottles at work. It’s not much, but it’s something.
    I always suspected that plastic was down-cycled. How many times can it be reused? Glass is best.
    Recently I looked at the bottom of my running shoes and wondered where all of that plastic and rubber ends up.

    • Reply Jen October 10, 2016 at 1:03 pm

      Hi Andy
      AS you say, every little action helps, so the ceramic mugs and water bottles are a great initiative at work!
      I think I might be right in saying that Nike have a shoe recycling scheme where they grind up the old shoes and use the resultant material in things like athletics tracks? Might be worth looking into?

  • Reply Eloise September 22, 2016 at 3:27 pm

    I have recently moved to a county that recycles far less than where I lived before. Its a mixed blessing because it has made me rethink some my usual purchases but I still feel as though we have far too much waste overall in our recycling and our refuse bin. I think it is especially hard to refuse packaging when you have young children as , with the best will in the world, there is always a need for quick and easy shop bought snacks like crisps. As an adult you can choose to go without something but it doesn’t quite work the same way for children!
    I also find the whole organic/gluten free VS packaging thing really tricky unless I’m prepared to go much further afield than the supermarket for emergency buys.
    I have found Barilla pasta in my local Morrisons. There is a tiny plastic window but it is still much better than the alternative.
    Thanks for continuing to write!

    • Reply Jen October 10, 2016 at 1:05 pm

      Hi Eloise!
      Thankyou so much for your lovely comment! Sounds like you are doing a brilliant job at being more aware. As you say it can be tricky with kids-I remember never leaving the house without a banana and a stash of raisins! I also used to make batches of cheesy biscuits and hot cross buns and freeze them so I could just grab one out of the freezer as we were dashing out.
      The barilla pasta sounds great-I’ll check out my local Morrisons!

  • Reply serging ahead September 20, 2016 at 2:32 pm

    After reading your blog, I now make refuse or try a more sustainable option like bulk buying a priority. I have been reading your articles for a while now and it’s helped me make better decisions. I think sometimes people think that buying ethically is a bit middle class, making loo fizzers and citrus vinegar has saved me money and left me with less plastic to recycle.

    • Reply Jen October 10, 2016 at 1:07 pm

      That’s brilliant to hear, thankyou so much!

  • Reply Caterina September 19, 2016 at 10:30 am

    Sorry, forgot to add: Barilla used to do pasta in cardboard boxes, not sure if they still do, as I no longer eat pasta (worse luck) for health reasons.

    • Reply Jen September 19, 2016 at 10:39 am

      Hi Caterina
      I;ll keep a look out for Barilla-thankyou! And thankyou for your comments-so pleased it seems to resonate with so many people 🙂

  • Reply Caterina September 19, 2016 at 10:26 am

    OMG THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU, you have hit right on my bugbear, the idea that the more you recycle the greener you are. It drives me mad! Some time ago someone behind me in the supermarket queue (I know, I know…not ideal…) was going on about how much she recycles, feeling very good and proud about it, adding that she had to ASK THE COUNCIL FOR AN EXTRA BLUE TOPPED BIN!!!! Talk about missing the point! I am so glad you are posting about this very issue, it needs to be discussed.

  • Reply Pip September 15, 2016 at 12:55 pm

    Hi Jen, love this post! I find it so frustrating when people use their bursting-at-the-seams recycling bin as evidence that they’ve won the war on waste – I think the process between it getting picked up and imaging it as a new item somehow gets forgotten.

    On the pasta front, you can get wholewheat pasta at Waitrose (maybe some other supermarkets?) in a cardboard box with a little plastic window: There’s another brand called Barillo who turn up in lots of independent food shops who do all sorts of shapes in boxes and are pretty inexpensive.

    • Reply Jen September 15, 2016 at 1:29 pm

      Thanks Pip. And thanks for the pasta info. I try to buy organic pasta, so then end up torn between recyclable packaging, or organic. Which is better (or worse?!)??

  • Reply Katie S. (NC, USA ) September 15, 2016 at 3:57 am

    Hi Jen, I’m glad you keep writing even though I can tell it’s often a struggle for you. I keep reading even though it’s often a struggle for me to read, as well! I’m an older person from that almost forgotten “Second Wave” of feminism and we cared so much and believed so naively (as it turns out) that we were making a better, cleaner, safer, freer, more fair world that it’s hard now not to fall into despair about our world. I’m glad your generation has some, perhaps loads of people trying to figure out how to live and encourage others to leave a lighter impact on our world. And at least you’re not “hiding your light Under a basket” (That’s a verse from a little American Sunday School ditty called “Let Your Little Light Shine” that small children sing in church). So Shine On, Lady. You may never know the one person who has a change of attitude because they saw your little light shining !

    • Reply Jen September 15, 2016 at 1:27 pm

      Thank you Katie. It doesn’t feel a struggle to write, I think it’s more working out how to write the things I want to say in a way that resonates? Thank you for reading, even when it’s a struggle, and for your lovely words.

  • Reply RubyJen September 14, 2016 at 6:09 pm

    I haven’t seen pasta in a cardboard box, but I do only buy it in the 3kg bags (Tescos have them, I imagine the other stores will too) and decant into a cupboard sized tub when I get home. I figure it’s less plastic overall than buying the regular sized bags. Also it means there’s always an easy meal in my house lol

    • Reply Jen September 14, 2016 at 7:16 pm

      That’s a good idea Ruby-Jen. I’ll keep my eye out for bigger bags, thankyou!

  • Reply Linda September 14, 2016 at 12:40 pm

    Totally agree with everything in your post. I was horrified by Hugh F-W’s programme about take away coffee cups not being recyclable. I don’t have many but have always put the lid into our plastics recycling and the cup into the cardboard one. I am now concerned that I have contaminated so many loads of recycling our council collects! So, I need to buy one of those cups that can be used instead of a throwaway one……. However, they are made from plastic! And I’m not sure Waitrose would be happy for me to bring a china mug along to the store! I definitely refuse, reuse, reduce, repair as much as possible and still use many things given to us as wedding presents 45 years ago. However, I was brought up in postwar Rationing Britian so carefulness has always been a part of me. Glad to hear so many of you younger folk are being more careful too. Well done.

    • Reply Jen September 14, 2016 at 1:00 pm

      Hi Linda
      Yes, it gets really complicated doesn’t it? If you are trying to avoid plastic, then Keep Cup do a glass version, but it does come from Australia! Or there are silicone ones out there. And even some made from bamboo I think. This post might help
      Thanks for your lovely words and your support 🙂

    • Reply Chris September 14, 2016 at 2:58 pm

      Our Waitrose does not object to people taking their own cups they even sell reusable cups at customer services.

      • Reply Helen September 15, 2016 at 8:03 am

        I take my ceramic mug into Costa. What does it matter to them as long as they don’t have to do the washing up? Some cafes actually charge you less if you use your own cup.

  • Reply Chris September 14, 2016 at 9:44 am

    I find this very interesting but I have a warning about reusing. I piled a large amount of wood waste on my drive for the tree man to shread when he comes to trim my trees. But before he came I went away for a few days, on returning the wood had dissapeared. It seems a well meaning neighbour had taken it all to the tip for me.It never occured to me a nice neighbour would do this.

    • Reply Jen September 14, 2016 at 1:00 pm

      Oh crikey, I bet they thought they were being really helpful Chris!

    • Reply Vee Phillips September 16, 2016 at 6:14 pm

      Depending on your “tip”, it may get shredded for chip board by them rather than going for landfill – fingers crossed yours is one like that!

  • Reply Andy from Workshopshed September 14, 2016 at 8:48 am

    I’d agree that the comment about all plastics still existing is a bit bogus. I definitely burnt a few things I shouldn’t have when I was a young lad. There is also stuff we’ve chucked into space too. That problem of micro particles does seem to becoming more well known and I’ve definitely down cycled as well as upcycled.

    Repair is part of a bigger concept, of extending the life of products and materials. I saw an advert for a posh watch that suggested you are only looking after it for the next generation and I’ve seen the same comment said about houses. If you can make your phone, washing machine, car, coat etc last 5 years rather than 1, then that’s 4 less items made and 4 less items turned to waste.

    • Reply Jen September 14, 2016 at 1:01 pm

      Great point Andy-I always think that even if I can keep my socks going for another few months, then cumulatively over a lifetime, that’s quite a few less pairs of socks!

  • Reply Joanna September 14, 2016 at 8:46 am

    Blimey I just bought my little girl Eco uniform made of recycled bottles thinking it was a better alternative. Now I don’t feel as confident! It is tricky!
    I do look at our frankly overflowing recycling boxes and wonder how we produce so much in a fortnight! And that yes it’s great we recycle it but how do we reduce what have to recycle. ????
    I have started to use paper we have for starting fires in our chimnea and cardboard. But there’s so much more.
    Sometimes it feels impossible. ????
    Love your posts I’ve been a fan from day one. You’ve inspired me a lot.
    I’ve even started visible mending!

    • Reply Jen September 14, 2016 at 1:02 pm

      It’s so tricky Joanna! But it’s not impossible. Being thoughtful and conscious about what you are doing and why is the biggest thing and it sounds like you are totally rocking that-keep up the good work. And thankyou so much for your lovely words-really made me smile 🙂

  • Reply Nicky September 14, 2016 at 7:24 am

    Very well put – you are absolutely right. I read a post on the ecogreenlove site just last night which mentioned that ALL the plastic ever made is still in the world now – very frightening. Presumably this doesn’t include plastic which has been incinerated but that of course brings its own problems. We should, as you so rightly say, be refusing, reducing and re-using first. However as it is recycling week I shall go through my bathroom cabinet and recycle anything more than a few years out of date!! Most of which I obviously haven’t needed and certainly won’t buy again!

    • Reply Jen September 14, 2016 at 1:03 pm

      Sounds like a good plan Nicky 🙂

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