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

Related Posts

Resources

Greening Your Vacation – 5 Easy Ways to Do It

Earth is the only place we have to vacation so let’s take care of it.

If you could make your vacation more eco-friendly without a lot of hassle and little or no expense, would you be willing to you try a green vacation idea or two?

Does that first line have you thinking something along the lines of, “Get real? Vacation is about having fun and indulging yourself. When I am on vacation, I do not want to worry about the environment.”

That was the reaction of my family dinner table editorial board when I broached the idea of writing a post about greening your vacation. They emphatically stated that vacation is about getting away from it all, splurging, and just enjoying yourself.

Bravely, I countered with you can do all that and do something to green your vacation. They sighed. Clearly, I was not getting the point that no one wants to think about the environment on vacation.

Actually, I do get it, but rather than being deterred, I decided to challenge myself to present you with five easy and low or no cost ideas and attempt to convince you that you can do at least one these without decreasing your enjoyment or making you feel deprived on your vacation.

Vacation and the Environment

You do not need me to tell you that we all live on a big sphere where global warming, climate change, and pollution do not stop at state or country boundaries but I feel it is worth repeating so we are on the same page.

In part, a healthy environment is what makes a vacation destination a place you want to visit. Envision your favorite vacation spot disappearing under the ocean forever, vaporizing in the flames of a mega-fire, or devastated by an unending drought. Imagine a place you have been longing to visit so damaged or polluted that you no longer want to go there and even if you did, it would not be safe.

We each have a responsibility to live more lightly on Earth safeguarding not only the communities where we live and work but also the places we go to relax, refresh, and live it up for a short time before going back to our daily lives.

The number one thing you can do to green your vacation is to avoid air travel.

That said I realize that millions of people choose to fly to and from their vacation destinations for a variety of reasons. Fortunately, regardless of your travel method, making some part of your vacation more environmentally friendly is within your power.

If millions of vacationers, including you and me, did just one thing, we could collectively make a sizable positive impact. Every drop in a bucket does indeed fill it up.

Reusable Water Bottle

On your next vacation, bring your own reusable water bottle and keep it filled. Make a point of drinking fewer bottles of water that come packaged in single-use plastic bottles or aluminum cans or better yet skip it altogether.

Besides the negative environmental and social impact of bottled water, dealing with billions of single-use plastic bottles discarded in the trash, placed in recycle bins, and tossed on the ground is a challenging and costly problem for tourist towns, national parks, beaches, amusement parks, and transportation hubs.

So much so, that municipalities, recreational areas, and airports are increasingly installing drinking fountains and water bottle refilling stations in an effort to reduce their costs. This is good for you because it makes it easier for you to refill your bottle when you are out and about.

I travel with two or three reusable BPA-free 24-ounce plastic reusable water bottles and one bottle carrier with a strap.

Three Reusable Water Bottles with a Bottle Carrier

You can buy a good quality reusable water bottle that will last indefinitely for $15-$25. Many organizations and non-profits offer reusable water bottles emblazoned with their logos for less than $10 or even free (it is good marketing for them).

Reusable Shopping Bag

A simple way to green your vacation is to stash a compact reusable shopping bag in your pocket, purse, daypack, tote bag, or rental car and then hand it to the store clerk before he or she puts the souvenir coffee mug or the makings for a picnic lunch you just bought into a disposable bag.

Unfortunately, single-use plastic bags are ubiquitous and like single-use plastic bottles, they have a large environmental footprint and generate tons of waste. Because they are lightweight, plastic bags tend to fly all over the place getting stuck on fences and trees, clogging storm drains, and ending up inside unsuspecting animals.

I travel with two or three reusable bags that roll up.

Three Roll Up Reusable Shopping Bags

You can buy a good quality and attractive reusable shopping bag for about the same price as a reusable water bottle and sometimes organizations give them away.

Provisions and Packaging

Another easy way to reduce the carbon footprint of your vacation is to cut down on using throwaway packaging.

For instance, you can be green and forgo the exorbitant prices you often find at travel departure locations like airports, train depots, and bus stations by taking food with you such as nuts and raisins, pretzels, chocolate chips cookies, a sandwich, or a salad in a reusable bag or container.

Another eco-friendly practice is to eat at least some meals in restaurants with reusable flatware, dishes, and glassware. This requires no effort on your part other than selecting a restaurant.

If you are staying in a vacation rental with any sort of a kitchen, consider making some of your own meals. Breakfast is a good choice because it is a relatively simple meal to make and you are fresh in the morning. Give yourself extra green credit for packing up snacks or lunch for the day.

Just say no thank to excess packaging. You do not need a little, waxed paper bag for the raspberry truffle you are going to eat as soon as you leave the candy store. Nor do you need a paper bag to carry one sandwich and a bag of chips on your way back to the beach for lunch.

Travel-Size Toiletries

Bringing your own toiletries from home either in full-size original containers or in travel-size reusable containers is easy and cuts down on waste. Another benefit is that if you have sensitive skin (like me), you can avoid potential allergies and rashes from using unfamiliar products.

Those tiny plastic bottles of shampoo and lotion have a similar environmental impact to single-use water bottles and plastic bags.

I travel with small reusable containers filled with my usual 2-in-1 shampoo and conditioner, shower soap, lotion, and bar soap.

Four Reusable Travel-Size Toiletry Containers

You do not want toiletries leaking in your luggage so look closely at the containers before you buy them. An alternative is to buy travel-size containers of the toiletries you usually use and then refill them for future trips.

Shopping and Souvenirs

Buying souvenirs and shopping are an important part of the overall vacation experience for some people (including me) so this is probably a touchy subject. However, minimizing or eliminating shopping and buying souvenirs can free up your time for more sightseeing and other fun activities while decreasing your vacation carbon footprint.

To help you evaluate your vacation shopping habits and potential willingness to change them consider asking yourself the ten questions I raised in the post entitled Greening Your Vacation – Souvenirs and Shopping. I wrote this post past last year when I was grappling with own vacation shopping habits and trying to establish a balance for myself between buying nothing and buying too much.

Setting some limits on shopping before you leave home does not preclude you from being spontaneous or indulging yourself on vacation.

In September, I am going on vacation with friends to Omaha, Nebraska traveling by train from my home on the Central California Coast. I intend to implement my revised vacation souvenir and shopping philosophy on this trip.

After reading this post and thinking about it, I hope you can see yourself enjoying and greening your next vacation.

Featured Image at Top: Tiny Green Suitcase and Luggage Tag Made to Look like Plants on a Wood Background – Photo Credit iStock/Petmal

Related Posts

Resources