Recycling: Are We Really Making a Difference?

I remember reading and hearing about how China is refusing our recyclable materials about two years ago. It was concerning to find out we were shipping our trash to other countries, but to learn that we are no longer able to, and furthermore that I haven’t heard any news since I found this out, left me feeling a bit anxious. What are we doing with our recycling and garbage!? This seems like such a basic question that I’m floored that we don’t have a plan in place already.

We know what happens when we leave garbage to pile up with nowhere for it to go. Why was this not thought through? Instead we have a plastic pollution problem that is literally choking our oceans and lakes, using chemicals that are poisoning our foods and releasing volatile organic compounds into our atmosphere, excellorating global warming and climate change. And most of this is due, in large part, to the petrochemical companies creating massive amounts of harmful products for people and the environment. Mostly under the guise of it being cheap. This just isn’t acceptable in my book, and I hope a lot of others as well.

So I’m angry about it. All in all I’d say this is a healthy response to an unhealthy situation. But I don’t want to be blinded by the emotions that come with the feelings of being wronged in some way. Yes there are horrible things happening in the world, that don’t stop at the environment and provoke anger. But that doesn’t mean that I will default to black and white thinking. I.e. everything involving petroleum is evil and all plastics are wrong. These are only problems that we’ve stumbled into, using what we knew at the time to be the best solutions we had to what we were facing.

But if you’re anything like me, it’s difficult to realize that it doesn’t totally fall within my realm of responsibility to “solve” these issues. Taking on too much responsibility is something I know I struggle with, and I’m sure I’m not alone. So what’s the alternative to feeling like I have to come up with a solution? My best guess would be becoming part of the solution. Then advocating for the solutions that are most helpful. So what are some solutions to the problems we’re facing?

Let’s take a look at some of the problems we’re facing first, to get a better understanding of what it is we’re up against. According to the Columbia Climate School, of the 267 million tons of materials recycled in the U.S. in 2017, only about 94 million tons were composted or recycled. Much of the unrecycled material was either incinerated for energy, or went to landfills.

A large part of the problem is that there is no centralized program for recycling. In the States, there is no federal recycling program that is coming up with solutions and instituting guidelines for the process. It is now currently the responsibility of 20,000 communities in the U.S. to decide what and how to recycle its waste. And what’s more is that these recycling programs need to compete with other municipal programs such as schools and road maintenance for funding. This seems like a lose lose situation.

And to add to the confusion, the only plastics that are being recycled in the U.S. are 1 and 2. Plastics 3-7 are not being recycled, even though they are labeled as such. No bueno. This leads to a vast majority of plastics being sent to the incinerator to produce energy. Along with the plastics that are able to be recycled, but aren’t do to contamination, i.e. not being thoroughly cleaned. This means a majority of the material we are sending out with the intentions of being recycled, end up elsewhere.

With all this information, and misinformation, how do we begin to feel as though we are making a difference? From my understanding, the tenets of, reduce, reuse, recycle and refuse still focus on all the areas we need to be paying attention to, to help be part of the solution. One practice that encapsulates a majority of these tenets is zero waste living.

The concept of living zero waste is simple. It is to purchase goods that have no component that can’t be recycled, composted or reused in some way. For example, purchasing items from the bulk bins at grocery stores, and carrying them home in cotton, reusable bags or glass jars is a way to eliminate the plastic wrap or packaging that is too flimsy to be properly recycled. Keeping as many items that turn into waste, out of landfills and incinerators is the guiding ethos behind the idea of living zero waste.

And this is not an easy way to live for sure. So many items are packaged in some form of unsustainable material, that often times you will have to go out of your way to find alternatives. One big way to make an impact, as I mentioned above, is to buy product in bulk. And I’m not talking about the big box stores where you can buy a years worth of toilet paper on the cheap. But rather stores that have a section with bulk items, that aren’t prepackaged. Where you can bring your own containers to take home with you.

Whole Foods has a bulk section, though it was temporarily suspended due to concerns with Covid. My local store has recently put there bulk section back into use starting on June 2nd. There are other places to buy bulk as well. This site from Zero Waste Nerd has a location finder where you can enter your locality and their site will list some of the known zero waste grocery stores near you. I found a shop on my commute that sells household cleaning supplies in bulk. All you need to do is bring a container and fill up anything from laundry soap, to all purpose cleaners. This is a great way to reduce a lot of the packaging that comes with so many products we buy regularly.

Another site I found in my search, Litterless, has a similar approach in that they list stores by state, then city, that have bulk shopping options. You can choose your state from the list on their homepage, then they have a list of cities, with the stores and what they sell in alphabetical order. They also link to the store’s site, so you can check them out in advance to see if they have and are what you are looking for.

While we’re on the subject, how do you carry these items home to be used? You can’t just toss a bunch of flour or oats in your basket! For items such as the cleaning supplies, glass ball jars work well. this way you can buy as much as you need, use them straight from the jar in the case of laundry detergent, or refill your reusable spray bottle for other types of cleansers. I use the wide mouth Ball Jars which I feel are easier to use a scoop or measuring cup with.

If you’re buying bulk produce, reusable cotton muslin bags will do the trick. You can put all your fruits and vegetables in these bags. I use mine for items such as green beans and fresh herbs. I haven’t tried this, but you may also be able to use these bags for some dry goods as well. They would be great for items such as beans and oats. Anything large enough not to seep through the mesh of the bags. Glass jars will also work for spices and baking needs, such as flour and sugar. Just make sure to ask an employee to help you tare the weight of the jar before you load up.

For me, the items I buy bulk at the stores have a corresponding container at home. So if I buy a pound of wild rice, I have a jar waiting in my cupboard to be filled. This way I don’t have a bunch of bags loosely cluttering up my cabinet space. And I can reuse the same few bags I have to refill different items. So instead of using one bag for each item to then be stored in, I can have a few bags that I use to refill the containers that are already dedicated to a particular item and can easily switch up to contain other items as needed. This way I only need as many bags as items I need to refill. This keeps things neatly organized while also cutting back on the need to buy a large amount of one type of container (and then carry them everywhere).

Another way to get a handle on your garbage consumption is to do a trash audit. This is as simple as it sounds. Take your trash, probably for a week, between trash pickups, and go through it to see what you throw away. What are the items you are throwing away the most? What is filling up your recycling bin? From here, you can make the decision to cut back on the items that you find reoccurring the most. If you find that you are recycling a large amount of shampoo and soap bottles, maybe making the switch to something like bar soap for both hair and body. Or visit a bulk cleaning supply store like the one I mentioned above to reduce the amount of plastic that is adding up in your recycling.

There are also services where you can order refills for different products such as laundry soap. Companies like My Green Fills, sell packages of concentrated laundry products, detergents, stain removers and other laundry needs. This may not be zero waste, but it greatly reduces the amount of plastic bottles that add up quickly as a result of our laundry needs. And it costs less as well. The way it works is; they send you a bottle with packages of dry refills, that you reconstitute with warm water, once you go through the packages, you order more and use the same container to refill your detergents.

Paper towels are a big one for me. Switching to a dish towel could be the answer to this issue. Washing a few dish towels each week will definitely save on the waste produced by the paper industry. These can be used as paper towels are, only washed and hung to dry after each use. Make sure to buy cotton towels and avoid microfiber ones, as they can release large amounts of plastic fibers into the ocean which are dangerous to aquatic life.

Also, old tee shirts work great as cleaning rags. When I retire a work shirt, I will oftentimes cut it up to use as extra cloth rags that can be used for anything from cleaning up messes to dusting the furniture. And as long as you are wearing 100% cotton clothing, it can be tossed into the compost when you’re finished with it.

While we’re on the subject, composting is a great way to reduce the food waste we accumulate. If you have a garden or space for a compost bin, this should be a fairly easy task. There are premade bins you can buy that house compost, but you can also make your own. This article from The Spruce goes into the different methods you can use to create your own compost. One of them is making your own bin using a trash barrel. Something that is accessible to just about everybody.

And depending on where you live, there are companies that will pick up your compost for you, curbside just as your garbage and recyclables are already picked up. In Massachusetts, the Boston area, we have Black Earth Composting. Call your local municipal office to find out if there are services near you that you can join. Also a quick google search will yield plenty of results to get you started on your composting journey.

There is also a new trend in food markets and take out places where many of these businesses are switching to compostable containers and utensils for their take out containers and cutlery. Refusing plastic utensils and shopping at places that use compostable containers is a great way to make a small change in the ways we consume garbage. Asking a business if they use compostable or traditional containers will go a long way to keeping these items out of the landfills and incinerators. And in a pinch, bring your own reusable utensils with you when ordering take out.

And it isn’t only up to us as consumers to help slow down or stop the consumption of plastics. There is some exciting research that suggests that there are types of mushrooms that are able to use polyurethane, a main component in plastic, as its main food source. This means that some of the mushrooms that we eat, maybe the solution to breaking down materials that would normally take generations to biodegrade. And the end result is something tasty for us to eat. Win win!

This article from Treehugger goes into detail about the different types of mushrooms and how they were discovered and what they may be able to do for us in the plastic waste department. There is also mention of a mushroom that is able to breakdown polyester. Which, if you’ve read my post on whether it’s better to buy cotton or recycled polyester, you’ll know that this is a major environmental threat. Having an organic solution to these environmental threats is welcome news after what seems like a never ending stream of potentially dangerous outcomes for our future in regards to our waste consumption.

There’s a lot to be done on the waste management front. Luckily there are motivated people out there that are looking for ways to make the most impact on what seems like a pretty grim looking situation. This post from Wild Minimalist has some suggestions on how to shop zero waste. She mostly focuses on Whole Foods, but you may be able to try these methods out elsewhere, in other stores as well.

And one more tip that isn’t related to tangible objects. I was recently talking with a friend who told me that if you tend to collect emails in your inbox, that is taking a hefty toll on the environment. It may only be a few dozen, or maybe a hundred unread emails, but what I hadn’t realized, and what my friend pointed out to me was, that all those emails need to be stored on servers somewhere. This means that there is electricity being pumped into these storage facilities to hold and handle all your unread emails. So keeping a clean inbox is directly related to keeping with a greener lifestyle.

And this blog, Going Zero Waste, is also a great resource for making some of the switches from a less sustainable way of living, to a more green one. It can feel overwhelming for sure, but remember, you don’t have to solve all the problems all at once. And there are loads of people out there searching for and finding solutions to these problems as well. So relax, and take it one green step at a time. I hope this has been helpful, and as always, peace, and thanks for reading : )

Image Credits: “Recycle Logo From Recycling Bin” by csatch is marked with CC0 1.0

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