Are You an Aspirational Recycler?

When in doubt, find out.

Do you ever toss questionable items in your recycle bin hoping they will be recycled? I do. Unfortunately, this practice probably does more harm than good.

I am an avid recycler who evaluates every item before putting it in a recycle bin or trash can. We compost our food scraps, buy in bulk to reduce packaging, and responsibly dispose of e-waste, hazardous waste, and unwanted medications. Yet, I finally had to face it—I am an aspirational recycler. Sigh.

Aspirational recyclers are well-intentioned people who put things in our recycle bins that do not belong there. We believe recycling is good for the environment and we want to do our part to reduce waste going to landfills. We feel good about ourselves when we recycle items instead of putting them in the trash. If we do not know if something is recyclable, sometimes we put it in our recycle bin just in case it is.

If any of this rings true for you, you might be an aspirational recycler, too.

Unfortunately, our wishful thinking method of recycling can cause problems at recycling facilities like endangering workers, jamming equipment, and contaminating recyclable materials making them unusable.

The 30-second video below will give you a glimpse of what workers who sort recycling are up against.

I do not think you or I or anyone else is purposefully trying to cause harm or trouble.

We are just people doing the best that we can to deal with the constant stream of single-use containers, excess packaging, and disposable products that infiltrate our homes even though we try to prevent it. This stuff consists of hundreds perhaps thousands of different materials, some toxic, some permanently fused together, and most without any sort of labeling to help us figure out whether it is recyclable or not.

Complicating matters is that the United States does not have any federal laws mandating recycling so it falls on states and local governments to address recycling or not. This means there is no consistent recycling program across the country. Your recycling facility may accept things that mine does not and vice versa. The capabilities of recycling facilities vary, too. For instance, it is possible to recycle plastic bags but many if not most facilities do not have the necessary equipment to do it.

Is it any wonder that you and I became aspirational recyclers? I do not think so.

Okay, let us say that you agree that you are an aspirational recycler. A reasonable question is “What is wrong with aspirational recycling?”

Ramifications of Aspirational Recycling

Putting items in your recycle bin that your local recycling facility does not accept or contaminating recyclable materials leads to a number of problems.

People’s Safety

The people who work at jobs collecting, transporting, and sorting recycling have to contend with whatever you put in your recycle bin regardless of whether it belongs there or not.

I cannot imagine anyone putting used syringes, broken glass, or dirty disposable diapers in a recycling bin, but apparently, it happens and not infrequently. This kind of stuff is dangerous and in some cases poses a biohazard to people working in recycling centers.

Another safety hazard is jammed equipment and malfunctioning machines caused by items that are technically recyclable like plastic bags or metal hangers but that your local facility is not equipped to handle.

Everyone needs and deserves a safe working environment.

Contamination

Substances like grease, food particles, and unrecyclable materials attached to recyclable materials are forms of contamination. Recycled material buyers will not purchase contaminated materials so they usually end up in a landfill.

For instance, a cardboard takeout pizza box is recyclable unless is it greasy or has cheese stuck on it because these substances soak into the fibers making them unusable.

One of Two Workers Sorting Recycling Holds a Half Full Glass Jar
These two workers are sorting recycling on a conveyor belt in a recycling facility. See the half-full jar of something like chili sauce in the hand of the worker on the right? How recyclable do you think that is? Photo Credit – iStock/SeventyFour

Supposedly empty containers like plastic yogurt cups, glass spaghetti sauce jars, and aluminum soda cans that still have food residue or liquid in them can spill on other items in your recycle bin contaminating them, too.

Other forms of contamination include glitter on a paper greeting card, the plastic sneeze shield inside a facial tissue box, and a shipping container covered in tape.

Other Consequences

If some or all of the contents of your recycle bin are rejected during sorting at the recycling facility because they are unrecyclable or contaminated or both, it increases costs unnecessarily. This includes workers stopping what they are doing to unclog and repair machines and making extra trips to the landfill.

If you and I truly want to be more responsible recyclers, we need to do some homework and then change our behavior.

I am in. What about you?

I Want to Be a Responsible Recycler

Transforming from an aspirational recycler to a responsible one will take effort and commitment. Fortunately, like any habit, I think once we get the hang of it, responsible recycling will be easy and routine.

I decided to begin by visiting the San Luis Obispo County Integrated Waste Management Authority website to see what resources they have available to help me figure out what I can and cannot put in my recycle bin.

Front and center on the website is a search field called “What do I do with…” For fun, I typed in the names of a variety of items and looked at the information for each one. Below are a few examples of what I learned.

Campaign Signs

We just removed our “Vote Yes on Measure G” sign from our yard. (Sadly, this ballot measure to stop future oil and gas expansion and fracking in our county did not pass).

Vote Yes on Measure G Campaign Sign

Technically the metal frame is recyclable but our recycling facility does not accept it. The website suggested taking it to a scrap metal facility. If the sign part had been made of paper poster board it would have been recyclable, but our sign is made of corrugated plastic so it is not.

Interestingly, I saw a notice on social media that the local beekeeping association uses old campaign signs to make boxes for collecting bee swarms.

We decided to keep our sign for possible future reuse.

Shredded Paper

Although shredded paper can be recycled its shorter fibers make it less useful so only certain buyers will purchase it. In our county, the shredded paper needs to be put in a clear plastic bag before placing it in the recycle bin. Oops, I had been putting mine in a cardboard box and labeling it as shredded paper.

Takeout Containers

Takeout containers present a dilemma because there are so many different types and it is often difficult to determine if they have coatings that make them unsuitable for recycling. In many cases, the materials that make containers leak-proof also make them unrecyclable because the lining cannot be separated from the container, like the invisible plastic film lining of a disposable coffee cup.

Our county is working on banning Styrofoam takeout containers but many restaurants use them. These go in the trash. Clean plastic containers can be recycled if they are labeled #1-6. Clean cardboard containers are acceptable as long as they are not wax coated (test by scraping with your fingernail).

The two key things I took away from this exercise are:

  1. Our county website contains a lot of useful information and is a good resource. I should have been using it before now, but I am not going to beat myself up about what I did not do. I will use it going forward.
  2. I need to be more careful about rinsing out containers. However, I live in a drought-prone town so if it would take an inordinate amount of water to clean a container, like a gooey plastic almond butter jar, I am going to put it in my garbage can.

Of course, guidelines for your recycling facility could be significantly different from mine so check it out. Responsible recycling may require a bit more effort but I think it is worth it and I hope you do, too.

Can we make a pact that when we do not know if something is recyclable or not that we will find out before tossing it in our recycle bin or trash?

Featured Image at Top: View from Inside a Recycling Bin Showing a Hand Tossing in a Can – Photo Credit iStock/Janine Lamontagne

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Wind Energy and the Environment

Wind is clean, renewable, and free.

Did you know that in 2017 wind energy accounted for more of the U.S. electricity supply than solar? I discovered this during Energy Awareness Month this October because I decided to learn about wind power.

After stumbling across Energy Awareness Month a few years ago, I resolved that each October I would tackle an energy project or learn more about an energy-related topic and share what I learned with readers. Some of the topics I have covered include Energy Action Month history, the Clean Air Act, energy savings tips, rooftop solar tax incentives, and a review of the book Reinventing Fire.

This year wind energy is on my mind because the federal government and at least two wind companies are eying the ocean waters off San Luis Obispo County where I live on the California Central Coast.

Just last week, the U.S. Department of the Interior announced it is ramping up efforts to bring more offshore wind farms to federal waters off the United States’ coastlines. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the federal agency that manages the development of U.S. outer continental shelf energy and mineral resources, published some of their plans in the Federal Register.

Reading these announcements and news articles made me realize that I did not know much about wind energy so I set out to educate myself and share what I learned. You may not think that wind energy is pertinent to your community, but it is when you expand your vision to a society powered by clean renewable energy like the wind.

The intent of this post is to provide you with an overview of wind energy including its environmental advantages and disadvantages and to offer you some ideas for actions you can take to support wind energy if you choose to do so.

Wind Energy Basics

Even if you have never seen a modern wind turbine in action, you have probably seen wind filling the sail of a sailboat or turning the blades of a windmill.

All three are harnessing the motion (kinetic energy) of the wind. The wind turbine uses the wind to produce electricity, the sailboat uses it to propel the boat forward and the windmill uses it to pump water.

If you only have 60 seconds, I think the video below gives a good overview of how an offshore wind turbine works. There are more video links in the resources section at the end of the post.

Like solar, wind can supply electricity for homes, businesses, farms, communities, and power plants.

Solar panels on a home rooftop or wind turbines on a family farm are referred to as distributed energy meaning the electricity is consumed close to where it is produced. If distributed sources send their electricity to the electric grid, an entire community can share the power.

Large groups of wind turbines constitute a wind farm and can supply electricity for an industrial complex or to a utility-scale power plant, which then distributes it to their customers via the electric grid.

Most of the wind turbines producing electricity in the U.S. are land-based. A few have been around since the 1980s like the San Gorgonio Pass Wind Farm you see as you drive down Interstate 10 on the way to Palm Springs, CA.

Offshore Wind Farm in Ocean Waters off Block Island, Rhode Island
Offshore Wind Farm in Ocean Waters off Block Island, Rhode Island – Photo AWEA

An offshore wind farm is one that has wind turbines in the ocean or a large lake. The first U.S. offshore wind farm did not come online until just two years ago. Rhode Island made history when the Block Island Wind Farm off the coast of Block Island began sending electricity to the grid in December 2016.

Wind Industry 2017 Highlights

In 2017, wind accounted for 6% of utility-scale electricity produced by renewable energy sources, hydropower was 7%, biomass 2%, solar 1%, and geothermal less than 1%. 1

Wind blowing across the U.S. in 2017 provided more than 10% of the total electricity generation for 14 states, and more than 30% in Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, and South Dakota. Texas had the highest wind electricity generation capacity of any state. 2

2017 Wind Share of Electricity by State Map - Source AWEA
Source AWEA

Unlike coal, natural gas, or petroleum, the wind is a domestic energy source that cannot be exported. The wind industry provides jobs, lease payments for landowners, and property, local, and state tax revenue.

The U.S. wind industry employed 105,500 people in 2017. 2

Workers in a Wind Turbine Manufacturing Plant
Workers in a Wind Turbine Manufacturing Plant – Photo AWEA

Most of the components of wind turbines installed in the United States are made in the U.S. by 500 wind-related manufacturing facilities across 41 states. In 2017, U.S. based General Electric was ranked second in U.S. market share for wind turbine manufacturers. 2, 3

During 2017, over $11 billion was invested in new U.S. wind projects. 2

Next, we will explore some of the environmental advantages and disadvantages associated with producing electricity from wind.

Environmental Advantages of Wind Energy

Burning fossil fuels like coal and natural gas to generate electricity emits a whopping 34% of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming. 4 We could bring that figure to zero by transitioning to clean renewable energy, like the wind.

Wind energy is clean (does not produce emissions) and renewable (replenishes itself).

Wind blowing across Earth’s land and waters is free for everyone. Of course, capturing wind and converting it into electricity is not free but once a wind turbine or wind farm is installed, it operates on free energy for 20 to 25 years.

Wind turbines do not spew greenhouse gases and pollution into the air, which is good for your health and the environment.

Another major benefit of wind energy is that wind turbines do not deplete or pollute groundwater basins, rivers, or lakes that tens of millions of people rely on for drinking water and they do not pollute the ocean.

Wind Turbines on a Sheep Farm in Rio Vista, CA
Wind Turbines on a Sheep Farm in Rio Vista, CA – Photo AWEA

Land use for wind turbines and wind farms has pros and cons.

On the plus side, a wind turbine only occupies a small piece of land so other activities like agriculture, ranching, and recreation can go around them.

On the downside, the best place for wind turbines is in wide-open spaces and on ridge tops, which can be in remote places that do not have roads or transmission lines. Building infrastructure disrupts ecosystems and causes pollution and erosion. In the ocean, installing platforms (on the seabed or floating) and undersea cables can cause similar environmental issues.

Environmental Disadvantages of Wind Energy

A drawback of wind energy is that it fluctuates so it may not produce a continuous supply of electricity all the time.

Americans expect electricity to be instantly available 24/7/365 so wind power needs to be backed up with storage or an additional electricity supply source. Battery storage systems add to the environmental footprint of wind systems. If backup electricity is provided by a power plant that burns fossil fuels, it reduces the environmental benefit of wind.

Mining for rare earth metals and making steel and concrete to build wind turbines and platforms has a negative environmental impact including greenhouse gas emissions, pollution, and high energy use. The thing is that this can be said about anything that uses these materials so it is not unique to wind energy.

Wind turbines can present a hazard to birds, bats, and marine animals.  Careful placement of wind turbines can alleviate this issue.

Noise might be a problem if you live or work very close to a wind turbine or wind farm.  Noise may also affect nearby wildlife both on land and in the ocean.

Some people have an aesthetic concern about seeing a wind turbine or wind farm in their viewshed, a term I first saw while reading an article about our potential local offshore wind farms.

Yes, wind does have some drawbacks, but they are insignificant when you consider the widespread danger and damage associated with every aspect of the fossil fuel industry.

Wind energy capacity has skyrocketed since 2001 and continues to grow.

U.S. Annual and Cumulative Wind Capacity Growth Since 2001 Bar Chart - Source AWEA
U.S. Annual and Cumulative Wind Capacity Growth Since 2001 – Source AWEA

What Can You Do to Support Wind Energy?

You may not have a wind farm project going on where you live, but you can still support wind energy. Here are a few ideas to get your creative juices flowing.

  • Install a residential-scale wind turbine in your yard.
  • Learn more about wind energy and talk about it with your family, neighbors, and coworkers.
  • If you do have a wind project pending in or near your community, get involved by attending town hall meetings and other events that give you an opportunity to learn about the project and to voice your concerns and/or support.
  • Tell your local and state elected representatives that you are in favor of wind energy and ask them what they are doing to support it.
  • Request that your U.S. senator and congressperson author and/or support a bill extending renewable energy tax incentives.

What am I doing? I am going to find out what I can about the two potential projects off our coastline and get involved in some way.

Featured Image at Top: Wind Turbines with a Rainbow in the Background – Photo AWEA

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References

  1. Electricity Explained: Electricity in the United States – U.S. Energy Information Administration
  2. 2017 Wind Technologies Market Report – U.S. Department of Energy, Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy
  3. AWEA U.S. Wind Industry 2017 Annual Market Report – American Wind Energy Association
  4. How much of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions are associated with electricity generation? – U.S. Energy Information Administration

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