Why recycling is not the answer to our plastic pollution


‘The biggest cause of our inaction?


Plastic is cheap to produce, durable and adds convenience to our lives, but it’s also having devastating effects on our planet. 

We manufacture over 300 million tonnes of plastic a year – that is the equivalent to the weight of the entire adult population of the planet. And sadly, half of that we use just once and then throw it away. But, whilst there is no doubt that placing your recyclable item into the correct waste disposal unit is preferable to throwing it in to the general waste bin, recycling is not the panacea that it is disguised to be.

Government policy and the current dominant cultural movement has focused its efforts on encouraging recycling rather than reducing waste. Recycling, when done properly, gives materials a longer lifespan and reduces the need for increased production – but it does not solve the inevitable problem. At some point down the line, those materials will still end up in either landfill, or the ocean, and will cause the same problems they would have done if thrown away after first use. Rather than putting a stop to plastic pollution recycling simply impedes it. It can also serve to generate a false sense of security giving people a misleading sense of connection to the environment and a misplaced moral high ground. The result being, those who are made to feel that they ‘do their bit’ could end up feeling less inclined to reduce their consumption and ultimately end up contributing to the problem rather than helping to prevent it.

Unfortunately, as large corporations catch on to the fact that their audiences are showing an interest in protecting the planet, emphasis is put on the repurposing of products or recyclability of packaging rather than efforts to reduce harmful materials being used in the first place.

Another pressing issue, not all recyclable materials are actually recycled. In fact, only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled. This means that, despite our best intentions 91% of the time we are still throwing our rubbish ‘away’. Which means we are still harming wildlife and potentially ourselves. And, given that reports show there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans by 2050 you would think we would be more mindful.

The biggest cause of our inaction… convenience.

Avoiding plastic is hard. From the lids that stop us spilling our morning coffee to the bags we use to carry our purchases home there are so many daily routines many of us have that we’ve never had to think about or plan for. But, our inherent attraction to convenience has landed us in a crisis where we’re putting our convenience before other living beings.


So, what’s the solution?  A shift in mind set.

A transformation in thinking is desperately needed in order to create a world where people, wildlife and the planet come before convenience and profit. And, whilst it’s easy to blame the litter bugs who won’t stop buying single-use plastic or the large corporations that produce it there’s a lot we can all be doing to drive change.


The degenerative plastic problem our planet is hopelessly trying to cope with isn’t going to be reversed by recycling, and adopting a zero-waste lifestyle is going to be nearly impossible for the majority with the current economic systems that are in place. Currently, we wait until we have waste and then figure out what to do with it.

A better alternative is encouraging more industries to adopt the circular economy model where waste is minimised by planning ahead and assessing how materials can be reused and recycled at the end of a product’s life cycle before it even begins. We can encourage and accelerate the move to a circular economy by supporting organisations like the Ellen MacArthur Foundation who partners with business, government and academia to build a framework for an economy that is restorative and regenerative by design.



One of our biggest problems with plastic is that it’s been allowed to exist on a grand scale, despite our knowledge of the detrimental effects its having on our planet, oceans and local communities.

In order to encourage reduced consumption, it’s important that recycling is not portrayed as the perfect solution to the plastic crisis and that lawful reinforcement is put in place so that businesses are required to pay more careful attention to the part they play in solving this global issue.

We can encourage changes in legislation by signing petitions like this one: https://www.change.org/p/london-ban-all-disposable-single-use-plastic


Whilst it is important that large corporations and governments acknowledge their ability to make drastic improvements to plastic pollution, we as individuals can also take action. From a basic business standpoint, this comes down to supply and demand. If we are demanding that our fruit and veg is sold to us plastic free then companies will have to figure out how that can be done or, face losing valuable customers.

Taking action, even in small ways, increases demand for a new system. A system that would mean clean cities, rivers and oceans as well as healthy, happy people.

Plastic pollution is not one person, company or government’s problem it’s something we are all responsible for and can help to change.


Rachael CooneyComment