Is Recycling an Experience we’ve been sold?

Katie Dempsey
7 min readJul 6, 2022


This image is property of The New York Times from their Video Op-Ed “The Great Recycling Con”

Now before the hate starts rolling in, I am a huge proponent of reusing and recycling. I get deep personal satisfaction from taking my recycling down from my third story flat to the, albeit horribly smelling, garbage room on my ground floor and sorting it into different bins. As we’ve all been told, it’s the least we can do to combat the looming climate problem and personally knowing that a portion of the packaging I’ve used will be repurposed makes me feel a tiny bit better. I imagine most people feel this way, and as I pondered that thought I started to spiral wondering if this tiny hit of dopamine I got from dumping my recyclables in a separate bin was the same kind of emotional manipulation I had felt when my phone used to ding with a notification. Side note, my phone has been on silent for seven years.

So let me back up to explain how I got here. I used to work in retail logistics, essentially I was the person who coordinated all the wholesale shipments that went to a warehouse to then be sent out to individual consumers or stores. One of the things that bothered me to no end was the amount of cardboard boxes I had to deal with. It felt like everyday we left the office it was a running joke that you weren’t allowed to leave unless you took boxes with you to avoid tripping over them the next morning.

Since then I’ve always ranted to people that there had to be a better way to ship things without causing so much waste. I had always heard rumors that what we put in our recycling bins never really got recycled, or that even if it got recycled companies only integrated the recycled materials into a tiny percentage of their products. Leaving me to question the entire system of using cardboard boxes, were we even making a difference recycling them? Or if we as businesses and individuals just tried a little harder to find an alternate solution, would we be doing better by the planet? These questions remained passing thoughts as I passed the never-ending pile of cardboard boxes in our office courtyard.

It wasn’t until I left that career path and began studying UX Design that I wondered if this old lingering thought might have some meat to it.

My initial idea being maybe I could redesign the entire shipping model where cardboard boxes would be a thing of the past, big idea but it never hurts to try. But how? I began researching the initial context of this problem. Why does every company use cardboard boxes? Are the boxes actually made from recycled material? Do the cute plant protein drinks I buy that come in old style milk carton boxes actually get broken down and reused? I had to continue reminding myself to not fall down the google rabbit hole of validating my own supposedly good choices.

As it turns out, paper and cardboard are one of the easiest and cheapest materials to recycle and normally (outside of Covid times) manufactures of cardboard will recycle their own boxes they send to suppliers within two weeks to be integrated into the production of new boxes.

According to the CPI (Confederation of Paper Industries)

“Every newly-made cardboard box is made up of around 75 per cent recycled material.”

Cardboard as a raw material has already been processed, so when cardboard boxes are given back, it takes less energy, chemicals and trees to repurpose the fibers than it would to make new fibers from scratch. This is a win-win situation for manufactures as it incentivizes them to use recycled fibers for new production keeping costs and environmental impact low.

I found myself a bit defeated, as actually, the need for something ‘more sustainable’ didn’t seem to be a need at all in this particular case. While the UK recycling rate for households is still only 44%, so a lot of room for improvement; the shipping industry, regarding the production of cardboard boxes, actually does a pretty good job of repurposing recycled material, given that companies responsibly recycle avoiding contamination. Additionally, some start-ups have barreled down this path I set for myself, making prototypes for reusable shipping containers with all the modern tech specs you can imagine. The problem? It doesn’t actually seem to be any more environmentally friendly, cost effective or easy to use.

So there went my five-years-in-the-making, million-dollar idea.

But what stayed with me after was all the other information I had come across looking into the landscape of recycling. While paper and cardboard might be the poster child for reusable production, most other materials sold as ‘recyclable’ are barely that, and the kicker is plastic:

“All used plastic can be turned into new things, but picking it up, sorting it out and melting it down is expensive. Plastic also degrades each time it is reused, meaning it can’t be reused more than once or twice.”

More so, only 9% of plastic globally since 2015 has even been recycled at all with the rest of it ending up incinerated or in landfills. Simultaneously there have been huge pushes for clothing manufactures to be more environmentally friendly, we’ve all seen the articles on fast fashion and how damaging it is, or how detrimental chemicals used for textile production are massively polluting our water and air. The sad part is, none of these issues are something an individual has power over. 100 large companies are to blame for 71% of Green House Gas emissions since 1988 according to a report published by the Climate Accountability Institute.

I think for most people this is likely something we knew but don’t like to think about. It confirms every throwaway comment anyone’s ever made when I was trying to sort out my recycling bin or wash out a container before separating it.

Why are we even bothering?

Feeling disappointed that my research for what I had hoped would be a cute case study on a modern reusable shipping container, resulted in no real need for that product and furthermore negated my lifelong efforts of recycling my peanut butter jars, I reflected on the feeling I was left with.

Recycling as an individual is so much more about the way it makes us feel than the action itself.

Since recycling campaigns began in the 1990s they’ve always pushed individual responsibility; pay attention to your carbon footprint, buy an electric car, make sure you do your part! And when I saw those adds I always felt the personal fulfillment of being able to go “yeah I am!” while giving myself an internal high five. The repeated action of searching for a recycling bin instead of a garbage can, taking the one second to reflect on whether something can be recycled or should be thrown away, builds a habit into our personalities that while we can’t do much we can do something. And it makes us feel good.

Humans are complex beings but we are simple in that we seek out experiences that make us feel good or better than we felt before. It is the essence of good product design that if a user feels rewarded or happy, they will come back again to use that product, it’s as simple as that. (Okay ease of use is important as well but that’s neither here nor there).

Recycling was never something I thought of as an experience but a duty to do my part in a system that I had little to no control over, yet somehow I feel duped like the emotional experience of recycling has been used as a tool for me to stay obliging in buying products from companies that don’t want to change how they function.

So where does that leave us?

Even if recycling on an individual household level is an experience that has been used to make us feel better and distract us from the fact that the large corporations responsible for this situation are doing nothing, we shouldn’t make things worse. Even if the perceived effect is not as great as the actual one, it’s not a good enough reason to stop doing it. And unlike a phone notification that at least for me was a tiny rush followed by a hint of anxiety, the good feeling we get after recycling is a genuine one because we have made a conscious effort to do something good for the purpose of good.

So I leave you on this note, rather than becoming one of those annoying people saying there’s no point, let us try to search for a solution that doesn’t ask us to promote an easier or more enjoyable recycling experience but eliminates it as being a band aid solution to a gaping wound.

Quotes, statistics and more information came from the below articles: