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We Often Fool Ourselves Into Thinking We’re Helping the Planet—But That’s OK

woman carrying several plastic bottles in her arms

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Key Takeaways

  • The recycling rate has gone up markedly since the 1960s, but some people are wish-cycling— recycling something even if they're not sure it can be recycled.
  • With 100 companies responsible for over 70% of all greenhouse gas emissions, there's even a debate over whether or not recycling is worth it.
  • However, recycling might be helping our mental health as we look after the planet.


A lot of us recycle without thinking twice about putting a plastic bottle in the recycling bin when we’re finished with it. You’re clearing out some clutter and helping the planet at the same time—it’s a win-win, right? 

Actually, the way we recycle can do more harm than good. Have you ever grabbed something and put it in the recycling anyway, even if you’re not totally sure it's recyclable—in the hope that it will be? The knock-on effects of this, also known as wish-cycling, can be more serious than you might think. Not long after your recycling gets picked up, manual workers will likely sort through it and in many cases, if something can’t get recycled, manual workers will pick it up and put it in the trash.

If the unrecyclable item manages to get past this phase, it’s likely to cause issues further along in the process. Plastic bags, for instance, wrap around and jam up equipment and can blow away and end up in the ocean. While plastic bags are often recyclable, it’s best to find recycling programs that focus on them specifically.

Some cities have even canceled their recycling programs in recent years, sometimes burning waste or simply sending it to landfills instead. Not only that but China, one of the biggest importers of recyclables, has stopped accepting most foreign recyclables too. 

As people become increasingly concerned about the looming effects of climate change, it puts collective stress on our mental health, but the big question is: Is it better to keep recycling so we might feel a little better about "saving the planet" and ease some of our anxieties, or are we just kidding ourselves?

Is Recycling Still Worth It?

Despite this, we’re still recycling frequently. In 2018, the recycling rate was over 32% with almost 94 million tons of waste being recycled, a sharp increase from under 7% in 1960 . The 2018 figures were down slightly from 2015 when the recycling rate was 34.7%, but this isn’t a huge difference.

Jared Scherz, PhD, MEd, ACS

How we balance giving and receiving with the world (e.g. composting or recycling) helps us feel like we are more mature, more empathic, and more generous. We realize that we have to come outside ourselves in order to be more evolved as a human being.

— Jared Scherz, PhD, MEd, ACS

We might be recycling a lot, but is it worth it? Not only are we sometimes recycling things that shouldn’t be recycled, but oftentimes there’s nowhere for the recycling to actually go. Sure, it might make us feel good, but is there any point? 

What This Means For You

Feeling anxious because of climate change is totally normal, but while we can't make huge changes individually it doesn't mean that we can't continue to recycle and do what we can—even if it's just to help our mental health.

Our Responsibility to the Planet

It was highlighted in the Carbon Majors Report in 2017 that just 100 companies were responsible for over 70% of global greenhouse gas emissions over the course of the previous three decades, and when we’re faced with information like this, it can be easy to wonder why we’re making individual changes to become more environmentally-conscious at all. 

Rick Heede, co-director and co-founder of the Climate Accountability Institute, explains that both businesses and individuals have a responsibility to make a difference: “As individuals, we enable large oil, gas and coal companies to perpetuate and deepen the climate crisis. Fossil fuel producers, and other large companies, have the largest share of responsibility for emissions, but they all depend on customers who tacitly endorse company emissions by the very fact of buying their carbon-intensive products.”

He explains that individual consumers can still make themselves more aware of the impacts of the products they buy, and make changes to their consumption habits, be that buying goods produced locally, cutting back on carbon-intensive fuels, or switching to alternative modes of transportation.

How Recycling Can Benefit Our Mental Health

As well as helping the planet, however, recycling and other individual forms of environmental activism can help our mental health. Yes, perhaps we should be holding large corporations to account, but at the same time as pressuring businesses and governments to take action, we can start at home—and we might feel better for it. 

Studies have shown that being close to nature can have a positive impact on mental health while climate change has the opposite effect. This could be anything as simple as recycling or walking rather than taking the car if you’re able to, or partaking in climate action as a group. If nothing else, it gives us a sense of control over things, no matter how small. 

Rick Heede, co-director and co-founder of the Climate Accountability Institute

Fossil fuel producers, and other large companies, have the largest share of responsibility for emissions, but they all depend on customers who tacitly endorse company emissions by the very fact of buying their carbon-intensive products.

— Rick Heede, co-director and co-founder of the Climate Accountability Institute

Ecotherapy, a form of therapy that involves being outside—often in green spaces—has been shown to work in improving mental health and reducing stress, and while recycling isn't quite the same, it's still a form of connecting with the environment and caring for the planet.

Clinical psychologist, author and consultant, Jared Scherz, PhD, MEd, ACS, says, “We have three areas of our life that can impact happiness: Our relationship with self, our relationship with others, and our relationship with the world."

“How we balance giving and receiving with the world (e.g. composting or recycling) helps us feel like we are more mature, more empathic, and more generous. We realize that we have to come outside ourselves in order to be more evolved as a human being.”

Dr. Scherz explains that as we take care of the planet, the planet simultaneously provides for us, and this allows us to live in harmony with the world around us, “generating peace and satisfaction.”

Climate change is affecting our mental health on a global scale, both due to the changes in the climate themselves and also because we’re feeling anxious about the state of the planet and the future, but at least if you’re doing your bit you might feel slightly more at ease. Maybe we are fooling ourselves into thinking we’re making a tangible difference, but if it helps our mental health in the time being, is there really anything wrong with that? 

Ultimately, while putting that empty bottle or piece of cardboard in the recycling isn’t going to change the world, it’s still better than nothing. Just make sure that it’s definitely recyclable first. Like Heede says, “Recycling aluminum cans is only a start, but much more is in our power to do.”

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4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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