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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Green Twist on 10 Healthy Eating New Year’s Resolutions

A healthy lifestyle requires a healthy Earth.

If you are contemplating a 2018 New Year’s resolution to eat healthier, consider doing it in an environmentally friendly way that helps Earth be healthier, too.

The top New Year’s resolutions usually fall into three categories: health, money, or time. In the health category, popular resolutions include losing weight, exercising more, and living a healthier lifestyle. I believe healthy eating is the foundation for those three goals. First, no matter what advertisers tell you, you will not lose weight unless you eat healthy, too. Second, eating healthy will give you the energy you need to exercise and lastly, a healthy lifestyle includes healthy eating.

In this post, you can explore ten potential healthy eating New Year’s resolutions that are also good for the planet.

10 Planet Friendly Healthy Eating New Year’s Resolutions

These New Year’s resolution suggestions are about actions not specific food and beverage recommendations. Some may seem weird to you, but I hope you will find a least one that makes you think, “Yes, I can and want to do that.”

Abstain from Aluminum

No substance that you need for healthy eating comes in an aluminum can.

Aluminum is a valuable material that has an enormous environmental footprint. You can read about the process of making aluminum and the environmental issues associated with it in the post, Aluminum Beverage Cans – Environmental Impact. It is incredibly wasteful to use aluminum to make a can that you open, drink the contents, and then get rid of, even if you recycle the can, which most people do not do.

New Year’s Resolution: Stop buying anything that comes in aluminum cans, forever.

Composting Can Change Your Choices

You can make good use of the peels and rinds from all the fresh fruits and vegetables you will be consuming as part of your quest to eat healthier.

Instead of tossing produce scraps in your trash or grinding them up in your garbage disposal, consider composting them to create a nutritious treat for the soil in your yard or your neighbor’s.

The act of putting a spoiled potato or banana in your compost pail could change the way you shop for produce and reduce food waste in your household.

If you think composting is something other people should do, read the post, Composting Made Easy – Tips from an Unlikely Composter (that is I) and then see if you are willing to try it.

New Year’s Resolution: Set up a composting bin in your yard or on your patio and put all your fruit and vegetable scraps in it.

Do-it-Yourself Dining

Preparing and Cooking a Meal to Eat at HomeTake control of what goes into and stays out of your food by preparing your own meals.

You select the recipes, choose the ingredients, read the package/jar labels, season to your taste, and decide on your own portion sizes. Plus, chances are you do not have unpronounceable additives in your pantry that may improve the shelf life of processed foods but do nothing for your health.

When you dine at home or take your lunch to school or work, you can choose foods with less packaging, eat on reusable tableware, and reduce food waste.

New Year’s Resolution: Make at least one meal a week yourself. If one meal a week is too easy, then up the difficulty of your resolution. For instance, if you usually eat lunch out during the workweek; bring your own lunch at least three days a week.

Find it at the Farmer’s Market

Imagine buying a head of lettuce or a peach picked at the peak of ripeness and deliciousness the day before you buy it. Fresh fruits and vegetables are the star attractions at the over 8,600 farmers markets in the United States, which makes it easy for you to choose healthy food.

When you buy food directly from the people who grow and produce it, you are saving energy, water, fuel, waste, and supporting farmers in your own community. If you are worried that shopping at the farmers market might be too expensive or time-consuming, read the post 5 Reasons to Shop at the Farmers Market and then decide if you want to give it a whirl.

New Year’s Resolution: At least once a month, shop at a farmers market near where you live or work. Depending on the climate, farmers markets may operate year round or only in warmer months.

Healthy Hydration Habit

You probably already know that drinking water is important to your health. Keeping water within your reach at all times, in a glass or reusable bottle, makes staying hydrated easier and almost automatic.

In most areas in the United States, tap water is inexpensive and safe to drink. If you do not like the “taste” of your tap water, use a filtering pitcher or install an osmosis system. Before you dash out to the store to stock up on cases of bottled water, please consider its environmental and social implications.

New Year’s Resolution: Stay hydrated without buying water in a disposable container (a recyclable container is still disposable).

Look for Local

The next time you are shopping for groceries, make a point of looking for and buying produce grown locally.

Grocery Market Locally Grown Produce SectionThis makes it easy for you to select fruits and vegetables that are in season, freshly picked and did not travel on an airplane in route to your market. Local meat, eggs, dairy, bread, and processed foods (like spaghetti sauce) are also good choices.

If you cannot find locally sourced produce at your regular grocery store, try shopping at a co-op, natural food store, or family-owned market.

New Year’s Resolution: Once a month, buy only fruits and vegetables that were grown locally or switch from a national brand of a packaged food to a locally or regionally made product.

Make Some Meals Meatless

I think most people know that eating vegetables, beans, fruits, nuts, and whole grains are part of a healthy eating plan, yet Americans do not seem to eat enough of these foods. One simple (but not necessarily easy) way to eat more plants is to devote less space on your plate to meat or to push it completely off the plate. This does not mean you have to start eating tofu or kale, unless you want to, which I do not.

Nowadays, most Americans are far removed from where our food comes from so you may not realize that eating meat has a ginormous and far-reaching environmental impact. Out of the ten suggested resolutions in this post, eating less meat is probably the best thing you can do for your own health and Earth’s.

New Year’s Resolution: At least once a week, for one meal, fill your plate with plants and no meat.

Opt for Organic

For most of human history, farmers grew food organically meaning without pesticides, genetically modified organisms, or sewage sludge and they did not need to wear hazmat suits at work.

Nowadays, thanks to organic food fans demanding and buying organic food for several decades, it is now widely available and reasonably affordable. Farmers markets, co-ops, and CSA shares are good sources of organic food and even national grocery market chains and big box stores are stocking at least some organic food, especially produce.

New Year’s Resolution: Switch to buying the organic version of one type of fruit, vegetable or other food product each month of the year.

Sign Up for a CSA Share

Envision yourself picking up or having delivered to you a box of freshly picked seasonal produce each week during the growing season where you live.

Fresh winter produce from weekly CSA share.If this appeals to you, then consider signing up for a CSA (community supported agriculture) share from a local farm in your area. Some CSAs will include fish, dairy, meat, or other local food products.

New Year’s Resolution: Locate a local farm that has a CSA program and then sign up for one year.

Ugly is Undervalued

American farmers do not even harvest over 10 million tons of food a year because it does not meet USDA voluntary standards for size, shape, and color, which wastes all the energy, water, and people power that went into growing it.

The fledgling ugly food movement is trying to change our perception of what constitutes edible food. This could lead to more food being harvested and made available to feed more people.

New Year’s Resolution: Join the ugly food movement. At least once a month, make a point of seeking out and buying weird and ugly looking produce like three-legged carrots or weirdly shaped apples.

I hope this post gave you some ideas about how you can put a green twist on your healthy eating New Year’s resolution for 2018. You can learn how to make a specific and measurable resolution and get tips on healthy eating by reading the posts New Year’s Resolution – Make it SMARTER and The Secret to Making Healthy Eating Easy.

What is my New Year’s resolution for this year? I am pondering a resolution involving sugar, something along the lines of learning about the environmental impact of the sugar industry or trying to figure out what constitutes a reasonable daily amount of sugar and then eating only that amount. Clearly, this is too broad and undefined for a New Year’s resolution so perhaps I need to reread the SMARTER post myself.

Happy New Year!

Featured Image at Top: Healthy Eating Vegetable Stir-Fry Dish – Photo Credit iStock/Mizina

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