Sustainability is about much more than recycling, yet many eco-conscious organizations do not look beyond the recycling bin.


When discussing sustainability outside our network of green professionals, more often than not, the conversation turns to waste and recycling. Many people believe that sustainability is about one thing: minimizing trash and recycling everything you can.

Within many organizations—including some that market themselves as “green“—paper, metal, and plastic recycling represent nearly 100% of their green initiatives. These organizations trick themselves into thinking they are green when in reality, they are not. Not only does this run the risk of greenwashing, but they are actually doing next to nothing to improve their environmental footprint.

Business activities routinely impact critical environmental areas that have little or nothing to do with recycling. The following is just a short list of these environmental concerns: fossil fuel extraction, fossil fuel use, climate change, pollution, toxics and human health, animal welfare, plant health, forests, air quality, water quality, soil quality, biodiversity and extinction, oceans, ecosystem services, land use, etc.

Why do people and organizations fixate on recycling?

It has more to do with psychology than either economics or ecology.

1. It’s taught when we are young.
Waste issues become synonymous with the environment at an early age. Children are frequently told to not litter, eat everything on their plates, and take an extra second to make sure recyclables are put in the proper bin. Often the reason for such an action when a child resists is “because if you do not, it is bad for [people, plants, or animals].“ This implicitly puts waste issues front-and-center when teaching children about ethics and the environment.

2. It’s part of the daily routine.
In the developed world, waste is a ritual that is observed many times per day. Try to keep track of how many times you discard an item during a given day. Odds are it happens dozens of times, producing dozens of opportunities to think (or not think) about waste and what happens to it when it is out of your hands. Some people are content to indiscriminately discard items in whatever bin is closest, regardless of where the waste ends up. For those who think about doing better, the default waste ritual continues until they decide to take action.

3. It’s relatively easy to choose the “green” action.
Waste Pyramid Improving your waste impact is rather simple. Most people that decide to reduce their waste impact work their way up through what we call The Sustainable Waste Pyramid (see image to the right): recycle everything that is recyclable, sell or donate unneeded items, use fewer single-use items, buy fewer new goods, and compost organic (food and yard) waste. While each of these requires both forethought and action, none is difficult to comprehend or complete.

4. It constantly reinforces your “green” goals.
Each time you perform a strategy on The Sustainable Waste Pyramid, your action reinforces in your mind that you are “doing your part.“ By doing the little things—remembering to bring reusable bags, donating used goods instead of putting them in the trash, knowing which plastics your waste hauler accepts (everything but #6!), etc.—people experience positive reinforcement every day, multiple times per day. Each time a “green“ waste action is taken, the brain rewards itself for going beyond what is required. This creates a positive reinforcement “feedback loop“ that, for some people, is all they need to feel like they are doing their part.

5. It’s easier than developing a comprehensive greening strategy.
Other sustainability issues are more complex. Responsible waste management is unquestionably a good thing in itself. But it is the tip of the iceberg in terms of sustainability. While it is neither string theory nor jet propulsion, sustainability is often tricky to navigate. Understanding sustainability issues requires skills from a variety of fields: engineering, architecture, ecology, physics, statistics, climate science, business, etc. This acts as a barrier to entry for well-intentioned people that may not be able to do as much as they would like. The average aspiring environmentalist can probably not perform their own energy audit, identify how much solar energy could be produced from a system on their roof, or set up a sustainability team at work.

What can organizations do to move beyond recycling and waste issues?

There are many options: a few being energy audits, green procurement, renewable energy, utility bill analysis, behavior modification, employee green teams, and greenhouse gas abatement.

Third Partners implements the above strategies and many more for organizations —from international NGOs & non-profits to startups to large companies—identifying legitimate sustainability initiatives that are custom to each organization and consistent with its goals and abilities. Read more about our work, or contact us today to discuss how your organization can become more sustainable.