Why Recycling Is a Privilege, Not a Duty

Why you’re looking at recycling in the wrong way.

The White Orange 🍊⚪
3 min readSep 4, 2022

A common scene in developing countries is the near-constant presence of trash permeating cities and choking rivers. As usual, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Plastic piling up by the shore of the Ganges river in Varanasi, India.
Ganges river in Varanasi, India. Source.

At first sight, this may seem due to a lack of environmental consciousness. Indeed, westerners, used to their clean and well-maintained cities and rivers and given their environmentally conscious culture, will take their hands to their heads in astonishment and think: “How can people be so dirty? “Don’t they care for their environments?”

That is what I thought when contemplating plastic piling up by the shores of the Irrawaddy river in Myanmar, until I realized there was not a single bin around.

You see, when you eat a cookie wrapped in plastic in a wealthy country, THERE EXISTS a place where to get rid of the plastic. SOMEONE, almost magically, will take care of it and make it disappear overnight. Even more miraculous is the fact that this will happen even if you fail to throw your trash in an actual bin. If you’re lucky, the plastic will be taken to a recycling plant, but most likely your trash will simply be incinerated for energy, taken to some place, never to be seen again (a distant, hopefully-controlled landfill) or it will be shipped to a money-hungry country willing to accept trash in exchange for money.

The key realization here is: “What would have you done if there weren’t bins around in the first place?” “What would have you done if there was no garbage collection system in place”? “Where would you have thrown your trash then?” You would have had no alternative but to throw it onto the street or into the nearest river, the exact same thing that happens in every country that doesn’t have the LUXURY of an efficient garbage collection system.

Trash clogging the Drina river near Visegrad in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Trash clogging the Drina river near Visegrad in Bosnia-Herzegovina (Arpil 2019). Source

The alternative? To be given the PRIVILEGE not to even produce actual trash, and instead, turn your trash into something useful again by recycling it.

Sorting trash for recycling is often perceived as a duty, a tedious task that takes space and time, something that one has to do for the environment or in order to avoid a fine. We take for granted that our trash will disappear overnight, yet this is a luxury only a few us of us have access to, immensely valuable in preventing the degradation of our ecosystems. People in developing countries might love their environment as much as we do, yet unfortunately they don’t have the opportunity to take care of it, as waste collection services are often inexistent— or because poverty forces you to prioritize survival above everything else. So next time you are bothered by having to separate your trash (into up to 8 categories in some countries like Sweden) think of it as a privilege you’ve been given to protect our beloved ecosystems, instead of a duty.