Why Your Definition of “Recycling” is Probably Wrong

Trash Talking
7 min readFeb 22, 2022

You may have a positive association with the word recycling, but its definition is often used for various purposes that can mislead well-intentioned consumers.

A crunched plastic water bottle
Image by Stas Knop via Pexels

I recently wrote about the misuse of the word sustainable, but I realized recycling is another commonly misunderstood term, especially in regards to plastics.

There’s a disconnect between what you think happens compared to what actually happens. The reason you hold this belief is not your fault. In fact, the plastics industry benefits from your misunderstanding.

Here’s the thing:

If you believe plastic recycling works, you will continue buying more plastic. It’s as simple as that.

The most malicious part? Plastic producers have ALWAYS known that recycling plastic would not make financial sense. Below is a speech made in 1974 by an industry insider (according to NPR).

“There is serious doubt that [recycling plastic] can ever be made viable on an economic basis.”

Recycling was never designed to protect the environment. Plastic producers promoted recycling to shift responsibility off themselves and onto consumers. If we individuals are to blame, then plastic producers are free to operate without interference (and roll in the dough!)

Below is a direct quote from Larry Thomas who used to be the President of the Society of the Plastics Industry (also from NPR):

“If the public thinks that recycling is working, then they’re not going to be as concerned about the environment.”

It’s bad enough that plastic recycling doesn’t work, but it’s even worse when the public is misled into believing that it works.

We have been convinced that plastic recycling protects the environment, but it only protects the profits of plastic producers. Especially when the term recycling is grossly misused.

What you probably think recycling means

When you think of plastic recycling, this is probably what comes to mind:

A used plastic item gets turned into another plastic item of similar value and functionality. For example, a plastic bottle becomes a plastic