Reading: Reconsidering Recycling

Impact

Reconsidering Recycling

Lizzie Horvitz

During the summer, I think there’s almost nothing better than getting an ice-cold Gatorade Fruit Punch  at my corner bodega for a midday pick-me-up. Did I just run a marathon? Heck, no!  Am I severely hungover? Absolutely not. I just love Gatorade. And as a steward of sustainability, I feel super guilty about it.  

Nearly 50 years after the United States started recycling, the rate hovers around just 32%. Plastic, specifically, is only recycled 6% of the time.  Even if I had the best intentions for throwing my recycling in the right bin, there are several other steps to ensure that a plastic bottle gets a second life, and it’s trickier than we think. This is mostly because each state and often each county has its own rules (due to several factors, including available technology and political will), so the most important thing to do is to go to your local website and check what is and isn’t available to recycle. 

First, a little recycling history.

Turns out, upcycling has been around long before you started DIY-ing aluminum cans into planters for your succulents. At the turn of the 20th century, rag collection was the only form of recycling in place.  People would walk around to houses and ask for old rags (yes, people actually did this), which could then be made into recycled paper.  With the start of World War II and the government’s realization that war costs could be minimized if they didn’t have to start from scratch to source materials, the drive to reduce, reuse, and recycle really kicked off. The government and citizens alike tried to find the cheapest solution; oftentimes, the biggest bang for your buck was to reuse something you already had.  

This led to a call far and wide for people to refrain from throwing out old materials and instead recycle them. Americans would take scrap metal from junkyards and repurpose it into something new, or they would modify old clothes to fit new trends and needs. War propaganda included helpful posters on how to prepare materials for recycling and what those materials would be used for in their second lives — think Uncle-Sam-style I want you… to recycle. Scrap drives were quite popular, along with tin, rubber, and paper recycling. Recycled products would go on to make anything from ammunition, patches for boats and planes, to gas masks for soldiers. 

After the ’40s and ’50s (i.e. the post-WWII era), the recycling boom seemed to die down until the late ’60s when the modern environmental movement in the United States began in earnest. This is when Americans finally began to recycle with the planet in mind. The government was also onboard — environmental legislation around air and water quality started to get passed, and, thanks to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring that exposed the malicious side effects of pesticides, people became more aware of how harmful pollution really is. Keep America Beautiful created PSAs to encourage the public to take part in recycling, and local recycling centers became popularized (though there were a few pickup programs scattered throughout the country as well). By the 1990s, curbside recycling was regular practice, and more and more states joined in to promote recycling and reduce waste in their landfills. Curbside recycling became commonplace and most of our recyclable materials were sent to China for the actual recycling process. 

Second…what’s the point?

Recycling  has a real impact on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and resource conservation. It’s not the silver bullet when it comes to waste and plastic, but it’s an  important start. Even better, we prefer avoiding single-use anything at the very beginning. The good news about this is when you incorporate reusing water bottles, investing in a soda stream, and buying reusable storage bags instead of plastic ones, we end up saving a lot of money, too. Unfortunately, the rate of plastic recycling is not only low, but also not promising. Judith Enck and Jan Dell lay out the reasons why beautifully. Despite our plastics problem, paper, cardboard, cans and glass are all recycled successfully, so please continue doing that. 

If we can’t recycle plastic, the best thing we can do is support local bans on single-use plastic bags and non-recyclable single-use plastic food service products. While many argue that this will stifle innovation, it will actually do (and has actually done) the opposite by  encouraging companies and entrepreneurs to innovate on how communities can get widespread access to water-refilling stations, install central dishwashing equipment in towns, and create a reusable system for borrowing coffee cups and to-go boxes. 

If you do have single-use waste (no one’s perfect!), here are some recycling tips:

  1. Wash your recyclables. Recycled plastic has a lower footprint than virgin plastic (which, as a refresher, comes straight from the oil and gas industry!), even when accounting for the water used to clean it and recycle it. When a recycling bin gets contaminated with food, often the whole bin needs to be landfilled. 
  2. The tiny number on the bottom of your product relates to the type of plastic it’s made out of. Even cooler? You can look on your city’s website to see what plastics are recycled. For example, if your city only recycles numbers 1, 3, and 7 and you get a 2, you know that it needs to be trashed. 
  3. Pizza boxes can be recycled! 93% of American Forest & Paper Association  recycling facilities actually do accept pizza boxes! It does still depend on your facility, but when in doubt, compost those extra mushrooms that fell out in the box and put it with your cardboard! 

Third…what about recycling something that isn’t glass, plastic, aluminum, or paper?

Like food, for example? We believe that the landfill should be the last place for food, with a sink disposal coming in second, and composting as best. Composting happens when various organic materials are mixed together to facilitate healthy decomposition. These materials are a combination of carbon and nitrogen, or browns (cardboard, paper) and greens (food scraps). You can either create a compost bin at home or look for food scrap collections in your local municipality. In New York City, for example, they accept:

  • Fruits, vegetables, eggshells
  • Coffee, tea, nuts
  • Dried flowers and houseplants
  • Bread, grains and pasta 

Some sites accept meat, fish, and dairy. 

Many compost bins simply hold food scraps until they’re ready to be put in a backyard composting operation, or picked up or dropped off.  Recently, electric composters have been getting a lot of buzz, which breaks down food scraps into dirt in less than 24 hours. They heat, aerate and mix organic waste and accelerate Mother Nature’s job of organic breakdown. If you don’t like the smell of organic waste, don’t have time to compost yourself, and can use an unlimited supply of nutrient-rich dirt for your plants, this is a great option! 

So what can you do?

Think about what you buy: will you use it to its full potential? How will you get rid of it? Can you reuse it? Is there an alternative? The less you consume, the easier it is to avoid the hassle of waste altogether. After that, recycling and composting is a great place to start. Check to see if there are local compositing locations near you, and follow your local municipality rules to figure out what you can recycle and how to do it correctly. Generally, this means making sure your recyclables are empty, clean, dry, sorted, and unbagged. Following all these steps will ensure that your recycles have the best chance of making it to the recycling center. 

 

Lizzie is the CEO & Founder of Finch, which aims to decode sustainability and empower consumers to make better purchasing decisions. Lizzie has been passionate about sustainability since the age of 16 when she lived off the grid. It was there that, depending only on wind energy and rainwater, she saw the solution of climate change before fully understanding the problem. Before Finch, Lizzie worked in supply chain and sustainability at Unilever and then became Chief Operating Officer at Muuse, a startup that aims to mitigate single-use plastics in the to-go industry. She has a BA from Middlebury College and an MBA and Master of Environmental Management from Yale University.

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