What Happens When We Recycle?

Recycling Symbol with a Question Mark

Even those of us who try to be conscientious about our waste would be hard pressed to answer the question “What happens when we recycle?” This exceptionally informative episode of the podcast 1A from WAMU and NPR looks more closely at recycling as a concept, as a practice, and as an industry.

Host Joshua Johnson finds that while two-thirds of Americans have recycling bins in their homes, just over a third of Americans’ trash actually gets recycled. That’s not just a result of individual action (or lack thereof), though how we each personally think about consumables is important. It also comes down to how producers of waste—companies, manufacturers, and retailers—have come to rely on the application of a recycling symbol on a package to excuse otherwise environmentally detrimental practices. Our addiction to online shopping and having goods shipped to us, for example, now consumes so much cardboard that it basically counters the paper waste saved by the dwindling consumption of newspapers. And more and more products are being shipped in packaging that is more difficult to recycle than before. Add to that the shocking (to me) revelation that a lot of recycling advocacy is funded by companies who own landfills and who stand to benefit from their use, and it becomes clear that recycling as a proposition is complex and not necessarily a net positive.

It’s not difficult to imagine a role that designers can play here. Of course, designers of consumer packaged goods have the opportunity to positively impact how companies think about the boxes, bottles and cans that they design for. But the whole recycling “ecosystem,” if you will, is so opaque and has been so poorly understood that it seems ripe for a designer to help clarify its intentions (e.g., emphasize reduction and reuse before recycling), shed light on its process, and provide better guidance on how to positively contribute to it. One might even argue that the usefulness of the now ubiquitous recycling logo has come to an end, and a new design system is needed. If you’re interested in these issues at all, I highly recommend listening below. You can also learn more at the1a.org.