Is Recycling a Choice?

by Tina Morris

If you have found yourself in the hallways of Pike during Friday morning recess, you might have watched your life flash before you. As you desperately tried to climb the walls to avoid being trampled, an army of seventh graders passed you — pushing, pulling, rolling and hauling every shape and size of blue bin towards the ever-so-enticing dumpster behind the gym. At Pike, we have made a stalwart commitment to recycle and compost as much as possible to keep our waste out of the landfill or incinerator.

But are our efforts misguided? We have been taught — some of us as long ago as the 1970’s — that the 3 R’s (REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE) is a code to live by if we care about our environment’s future. Waste is bad, recycling and composting are good … AREN’T THEY? Or is this issue, in fact, more complex than it first appears. Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate.

RRR logo-page-001A few weeks ago, an article, “The Reign of Recycling” by John Tierney (NYT, Oct. 3, 2015) questioned our blind devotion to this endeavor. By pointing out the drawbacks of recycling– the cost, the low prices for recycled products, the moral dilemma of “public good vs. private virtue”, the carbon emissions produced by plastic recycling plants, etc. – Tierney does us a favor by making us think about our reasons for doing something that can become a routine without a cause, a ritual without a rationale. There are many arguments both for and against recycling, many of which are valid and some of which are not. As is the case with most controversial issues, one can argue either side depending on which data you choose to make your case. Certainly, the old “nothing is perfect” adage applies here.

Truth be told, the recycling effort has migrated from a desire to help one’s environment to a huge business, one judged by its balance sheet and evaluated by profit and loss. As such, its altruistic origins among the eco-activists of the 1960’s have been lost while it has morphed into a more self-serving endeavor that makes us buy more “recyclable” products than we would otherwise. Our love for plastics, for example, has been condoned by that recycling logo on the container’s bottom; we can now indulge with a clear conscience. Instead of asking ourselves whether we really need plastic water bottles, we justify our “need” by saying, “But they’re recyclable”. So, can recycling have the opposite result than the one we intended? The answer is “Yes,” and it is imperative that we, as educated and informed citizens, recognize the traps of falling for the advertising of the plastic manufacturers.

We also have to keep in mind that it’s not an “either/or” situation. We need to REDUCE more than anything else. One way to do this is to become more mindful of what we purchase, and when we buy new products, try to buy reusable materials and avoid excess packaging. Our very last resort should be to recycle.

The system isn’t perfect by any means. The post-consumer markets are variable, the process is not without pollution, the programs might cost more than throwing it all into a landfill. But for Pike, where our mission is to educate the next generation to become responsible citizens, recycling allows us control and mindfulness, giving us a chance to return what we have taken, which will save us from living our lives as users rather than stewards of our earth.

The Pike School is an independent, coed, day school for Pre-K through ninth grade in Andover, Massachusetts. Visit to learn more about Pike – and visit our blog for more thought leadership.


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7 Comments on “Is Recycling a Choice?
  1. Good for you! You are really are (and have been) educating all of us about this important and complex issue. I really appreciate it.

  2. Tina, I so appreciate your presentation of a balanced perspective. You clearly frame the changes over time, rationale for continuing to recycle in our educational context, and issues to consider as we go forward as citizens of the world. Thank you!

  3. Thanks for this thought-provoking post, Tina! I am proud to work at a school whose leaders think critically about global issues. Thanks for all you do to encourage and equip us.

  4. Tina, thank you for continuing to educate and inform our community about issues and current thinking in the field of sustainability. You have been a true change agent here and are shaping the next generation of change agents in our world.

  5. Very thoughtful. Good to see that no issue is ever totally clear cut, and better to see all sides for a better understanding. All of that said, still glad the Pike recycles!

  6. Thank you, Tina. If only our blog had as many readers as the NY Times! You’ve put your finger on a fundamental issue – consumerism. Our marketing culture has us convinced that everything from clothing to holiday decorations needs to be “refreshed” every year. Reducing what we consume is the best environmentalism. Can this be mandatory reading for all the children and adults in the Pike community?

  7. Wonderful piece, Tina! Thank you for continuing to challenge the Pike community to do and be better stewards of our environment. It is so important that we teach the next generation by our actions as well as our words!

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