Confessions of a Non-Recycler

by Anna Wagner

I’ve spent much of my life going after corporate polluters through grassroots organizing. But I have a confession — I thought recycling was a waste of time. Was I being hypocritical?

A person carries a huge bag containing plastic bottles to illustrate the problem of plastic consumption.

I have a confession. There was a time when I really didn’t care about recycling.

I don’t mean when I was young and didn’t understand where trash went — when I was a kid in the mid-90’s I cared a lot about recycling and the ozone hole.

I’m referring to my early 20’s after I got a degree in environmental policy, when I got so wrapped up focusing on systemic change at all costs that I completely poo-poo’d individual lifestyle choices.

I didn’t recycle because I thought it was a complete waste of time. I know. Pretty bad right?

Back then, it was an either/or thought process for me  — either I spend every moment pushing companies and politicians to change by grassroots organizing like a maniac OR I waste my time on seemingly useless “personal lifestyle changes” by spending 20 minutes cleaning out the peanut butter jar so I could recycle it or spend a little bit more money on recycled content paper.

I’m not gonna say I’m proud of that time.

To be fair — my mentors at another organization held that view, and I really wanted to be like them. I remember being given a line that sounded super convincing at the time: “If I have to drive an SUV to a rally for higher fuel efficiency standards, so be it.” It was sort of an “all means justify the ends” approach.

But here’s the thing: we kinda seem like hypocrites when we do that.

And I don’t really care about the “hypocrisy mongers” — people who really can’t get past activists needing to use the tools of the system to change the system.

As activist Cherri Foytlin put it, “abolitionists wore cotton undershirts, that didn’t make slavery right. You use what you have as a tool to build something better… I think they call it ‘progress’.”

THAT guy: “Look at all you hypocrites! Didn’t you DRIVE to the protest.”Me: “You got a point. I tell ya what, I’ll…

Posted by Cherri Foytlin on Tuesday, February 27, 2018


As you well know, It’s next to impossible to go 100% plastic free in today’s society, which is really the crux of this problem — we must keep pushing the companies wrapping their products in endless amounts of plastic to do better.

I still believe that working fervently for corporate and government change is a must if we’re going to see the scale of change our planet needs (add your name to demand an end to corporate plastic pollution). But my activism is a bit more balanced now – a both/and approach, rather than an either/or.

I can drive a Prius AND shop at the farmers market AND work to challenge corporations to stop plastic pollution.

I can both desperately want a plastic-free future and sometimes have no choice but to use single-use plastic.

A little girl between used plastic bottles on an open boat on Rainbow Warrior in Varna, Bulgaria. The ship was in Bulgaria to support the national Break Free from Plastics campaign.

So we all do the best we can and work for change with all we’ve got. And that’s what changes the world.  

Join me in demanding an end to corporate plastic pollution. And for more ways to take action, check out our toolkit!

By Anna Wagner

Anna Wagner is a senior national organizer with Greenpeace USA.

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