There are multiple layers to any debate on recycling. The considerations are so complex that simply learning about recycling, which I used to look at as a panacea of sorts, has contributed more to my "environmental guilt" than probably any other cause. There is no way that I could come close to explaining or even summarizing all of the considerations and concerns about recycling, so I will focus on some factors that have given rise to my worries.
Recycling, by which I mean placing an item in a blue bin or taking it to a recycling depot, depending on where you live/what services you use, is the last of the "Three Rs". It seems to be the one with the most widespread acceptance, and given our consumer-driven economy, it is understandable why. Advertising, marketing and product development are all geared towards a disposable mindset where products are designed to fail within a short period of time, at which point they will be disposed of (or, at best, recycled) and new products will be purchased to replace them. There is no space in this method of production for products that are designed to last indefinitely.
Recycling is the last of the three Rs for a reason. While it is a step above throwing an item straight into the garbage, to eventually be taken to a landfill, recycling, particularly of plastics, is poorly understood and not at all as environmentally beneficial as the major producers of recyclable plastics would lead you to believe. Until only recently, I believed, naively, that plastics could be recycled indefinitely. That is not the case at all. In fact, in many, if not most, cases, plastics can only be recycled for one further use. Focusing on recycling plastics also conveniently avoids a consideration of the environmental impacts of the initial production of the plastic in question, which is another excellent reason to be concerned about the widespread use of plastic these days.
There are also issues with the energy used to recycle the plastics. If the plastics are being recycled in a plant using coal-based energy, the environmental impact may actually be worse than if the bottle were not recycled and just ended up in a landfill. In any event, the question of which is worse really emphasizes the fact that the best solution is just not to endorse the use of plastics in the first place. This has been one of my main drivers in recent years, and the avoidance of plastic products or products packaged in plastics will be the subject of many posts. In today's society, plastics are an omnipresent and difficult to avoid reality. That does not mean that we should give up, however. There is so much that we can all do to minimize our use of plastics.