It is time for the last step on the: “Five easiest steps to work for Earth” -list. The previous ones were: Reduction of consumption, Composting and food waste limitation, Plant-based diet, and Avoiding plastics. This post is about recycling, its benefits and challenges. Many seem to believe that recycling is the best thing to do to help the Earth, and it is only about throwing items into the right bin. It is only a bit like that.
Last week I wrote, how Recycling plastics sucks. There are some ifs and buts and side effects in the process, so it is natural to feel confused or powerless even. However, it is essential for the Earth that we do our best. Recycling included.
At first, a disclaimer. Regardless of an item or material being recyclable, it does not mean you can recycle it in your hometown. These policy and program differences are what make recycling frustrating. For example, in my city, we have to toss some recyclable plastic containers into waste bins. Only because they are black colored and the optic eye cannot recognize them. In the neighboring city, that color is not a problem. We don’t have a federal recycling program in the US. Instead, we have over 20,000 communities making their own decisions about their programs. Some of them choose not to have a program at all. But how to survive in this jungle of various rules? Take time to learn the recycling program your city follows and avoid buying anything you cannot recycle there. Could this advice be followed? Not perfectly, but that is something to aim at. That makes life easier and the world healthier.
The most common recyclables
- Possible to get recycled 5-7 times
- 66% of discarded cardboard and paper got recycled (2017)
Paper itself is easy to recycle. But it depends on the city and collection system, what we can put into the bin. The trick is that paper has to be clean. If the paper collection bin is not separate from other recyclables, it is essential to ensure that containers in the collection bin are clean and dry. Otherwise, the papers could contaminate. What follows then is that the whole bale of recyclable paper might get rejected from the recycling process. So no greasy pizza boxes. you can compost them instead.
It is recyclable, but unfortunately, many cities do not accept it in their bins. The shreddings are tiny and spread around and can sometimes even block the machines. Make sure you know the guidelines in your area before putting paper shreddings into the recycling bin. But if you have compost, put the pieces there. They are a great source of carbon. Of course, if you buy the compost service from someone, ask about their policies.
I have heard two reasons why these should be on the naughty list – the size and adhesive. If the machinery is right, there is not a problem. Ask the preference of the program.
If boxes, such as cereal containers have plastic windows, remove those before recycling. And next time, maybe choose another brand? The recycling bin should not be the first stop to delivery and moving boxes because they can be used several times. To avoid clutter at your home, you can donate the boxes. People who are planning to move and businesses that send their goods to customers are often interested. Also, donation drives, food pantries, and different charities do appreciate getting quality boxes. COVID time might restrict donation protocols at the moment.
- Possible to get recycled forever!
- 27% of it got recycled in 2017
This material is 100% recyclable, and it does not lose its quality or purity in the process. That is pure goodness. Any glass food container or jar is recyclable but avoid putting the following items in your recycle bin if you are not sure that they are accepted:
- Light bulbs
- Possible to recycle only 1-3 times
- 8.5% of discarded plastics got recycled in the USA in 2018.
Recycling plastics is confusing. How to recycle plastic water bottles (if we choose to use them for whatever reason) is obvious, if you have a bin for that at home. Maybe you have figured out what shape and color the containers have to be that they get accepted. How about the plastic bags? Does your closest grocery store take them back for recycling? What to do with all the plastic wrappings that come home with your groceries? Those usually end up to waste bins. Learn the program, do your best and try to avoid plastic as much as you can. If you are lucky, you can take plastic items, such as toys, to recycling stations (if your municipality has such a place).
- Possible to get recycled forever
- 10.5 million tons (U.S.) of steel and 2.7 million tons of aluminum ended up in landfills in 2018
- Only 50.4% of the beer and soft drink cans got recycled in 2018
It hurts to see someone throwing a soda can into a garbage bin. It is frustrating, giving the fact how easy it is to recognize a recyclable can. Aluminum is the most valuable and the most recyclable material in the recycling bin. There is no need to find codes from the bottom or guess the numbers like with plastic. As encouraging information, almost 75% of the aluminum ever produced in the USA is still in use! We can aim even higher.
So, if your municipality collects recyclables, aluminum is usually accepted. Did you know that also aluminum trays and foils are recyclable? The potato chip bags are also recyclable, as long as you are sure that they are not coated or mixed with plastic. If the empty bag keeps its shape, it means that plastics are involved. Check this from the guidelines of your recycling program.
Other metals than aluminum can also be recycled. But those items and pieces should usually be taken to recycling centers or arrange a pickup if such service is available in your neighborhood.
What to do with the old clothes and textiles that are in bad condition? Make your own rags… We only need so many rags. So what else could we do? The problem with fabrics is that many of those contain plastic. The cotton, hemp, wool, silk, and Bambu parts might compost, but the rest would not. And the buttons and zippers are metal or plastic anyway. Most of us donate or sell our unwanted clothes, but what about the pieces that are not in good shape anymore? My family buys composting service from Black Earth composting, and they also collect and recycle textiles. They take even the nastiest pieces and single socks and send them forward to be shredded for industrial purposes. Our linens, bedding, and towels go to animal shelters. Where they go from there? To trash, I guess.
Fast fashion is a real problem, and I am glad it has gotten attention from the media lately. The need for considerate consumption – and minimalism – cannot be emphasized enough.
Why don’t some people recycle even if it’s possible?
The ideal situation would be that every city, state, and country would have recycling programs, well organized and easy to follow. Happy, responsibly consuming citizens would know exactly what to do. Every home would have room for separate collecting bins for paper and cardboard, glass, metal, plastics (and for all the colors for the Earth’s sake), and COMPOST! But the reality is not this smooth, and busy people don’t necessarily want to follow through with things that make their lives more challenging. “It would not work anyway” is a great excuse. And of course, we have citizens who just don’t believe in any environmental crisis phenomenon so why fight for something that does not even exist. Luckily they are a minority. But, if our children grow up learning recycling habits, those become a natural part of their behavior when they are adults. And then it does not feel like an extra effort – just a normal part of life. It becomes as natural as flushing the toilet and making the bed.
Despite the problems, a lot of good has been done via recycling. It does save reservoirs of nature and usually energy as well. And let’s not forget the jobs the recycling industry crates and offers!
So, what is the take-away here? We want to harm the Earth as little as possible. We as individuals should do everything as well as we can. The best path to do so:
- Avoid unnecessities and reduce consumption
- Choose the least harmful materials (avoid plastic)
- Re-use, fix, donate, recreate
- Learn the recycling requirements and guidance in your area
- Think more
Let’s do our best, demand better programs, and teach our children towards a more sustainable and less wasteful lifestyle. For the Earth and Us.
Plastic waste article: The Guardian