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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Paper versus Digital Media – Environmental Impact

Stack of Newspapers with Notebook Computer

Which is greener, paper books or ebooks, paper magazines and newspapers or their digital counterparts? Are your reading habits harming the planet?

Reading is a good thing, right? Is paper or pixels a more environmentally friendly way to read? The answer is, well, um, it is complicated. Making an apples-to-apples comparison of the environmental impact of paper versus digital media is difficult, if not impossible.

A paper book, magazine, or newspaper is a tangible item that you can pick up and hold while you are reading it. A digital book, magazine, or newspaper is an intangible virtual item. The thing that you touch or hold in your hand for reading is an electronic device like a desktop computer, notebook, tablet, e-reader, or smartphone. Unless you read on a uni-tasking e-reader, these devices do a lot more than providing reading material.

A direct comparison may not be feasible, however, you and I can learn about the environmental issues associated with paper and digital media and explore how we can green our own reading habits.

Paper and digital media do have some common environmental issues including:

  • Extracting materials, whether it is logging trees or mining minerals and metals, damages and pollutes the surrounding land and water harming wildlife and people.
  • Making paper and manufacturing electronic devices requires huge amounts of energy and water.
  • Transporting everything from raw materials to finished goods via fossil fuel powered trucks, ships, cars, and airplanes produces greenhouse gases and air pollution.
  • Manufacturing facilities, warehouses, retail stores, data centers, and libraries require energy and water to operate.
  • Throughout its life cycle, each product generates nontoxic and toxic waste, including during recycling.

To me, the top environmental issue associated with paper is deforestation and the worst environmental problem with electronic devices is e-waste.

Deforestation

Making paper requires trees, hundreds of millions of trees. Thousands of things are made of wood and paper so it is not just books, magazines, and newspapers contributing to destroying forests.

A forest is a complex ecosystem containing many different species of trees, plants, and animals all working together for their own benefit and giving us oxygen, water filtration, and beauty.

Industrial loggers clearcutting a forest
Industrial loggers clearcutting a forest

Industrial logging destroys the balance of forest ecosystems. The trees, plants, and animals that used to live in the forest are killed in the process, must flee the area if they can, or die out in the aftermath.

People living in or near devastated forests suffer unintended consequences like erosion, flooding, and water pollution. Walking through a forest that has been clearcut is a heartrending experience.

Paper companies point out that trees can be grown and are therefore a renewable resource. Technically, this is true. However, a tree plantation containing a specific type of tree planted for harvesting (perhaps on land that used to be a forest) does not replace a forest ecosystem.

E-Waste

At the end of their useful life, desktop computers, notebooks, tablets, e-readers, and smartphones contain both valuable materials that can be recycled and toxic materials that require special handling.

Recycling processes can recover valuable materials like gold, palladium, platinum, rhodium, ruthenium, selenium, iridium, indium, copper, nickel, and cobalt.

Other materials in electronic devices are toxic and need to be disposed of carefully including lead, mercury, cadmium, brominated flame retardants, antimony trioxide, polyvinyl chloride, and phthalates.

Unfortunately, our society places a higher value on replacing obsolete or broken electronic devices than on repairing or recycling them. We also do not include the harm caused to the environment or to people in the cost of goods and services, which keeps prices of new products low.

Child sitting among toxic e-waste
Child sitting among toxic e-waste

There is little financial incentive for recycling so the majority of unwanted and obsolete electronic devices end up as e-waste in landfills where they leach toxins into the soil, air, and water. Even worse, we ship tons of e-waste overseas where people, including children, recycle items by hand with no safety equipment.

Both paper products and electronic devices have significant environmental impacts.

You and I will probably continue reading and electronic devices are ubiquitous so what can we do? We can evaluate our reading materials and make more environmentally friendly choices.

Greening Your Reading Habits

Over the past several years I have been attempting to green my own reading habits. Here are a few examples and some thought starters.

Stop Subscribing

The thing about subscriptions is that they are easy to renew without giving much thought to it. Do unread newspapers wind up in your recycle bin on a regular basis? Are magazines stacking up on your end table waiting to be read? Perhaps it is a good time to let your subscription expire.

I gave up magazines when I realized I never seemed to get around to reading them. These days, I occasionally treat myself to a magazine and then pass it on.

Go Digital

Over 15.2 billion pounds of newspapers and 2.5 million pounds of magazines were generated in the United States in 2014. Newspapers and magazines have a limited shelf life so switching to digital versions is a green thing to do.

Nowadays, I subscribe to a daily digital newspaper that I read on my computer and a small local weekly paper that is delivered to my mailbox.

Sharing

If you are not ready to give up your paper newspaper or magazine, then consider sharing a subscription with a neighbor, friend, or coworker. If everyone did that, it would save an enormous number of trees.

Sharing paper books that you purchased by giving them to friends, donating them to a library, or selling them to a second-hand bookstore is an eco-friendly practice.

I am a book lover. During my lifetime I have bought hundreds of books and donated many to the library, but I still had a sizable collection. A year or so ago, it occurred to me that perhaps holding onto books that I am not going to re-read or use for reference was, well, um, selfish. So, now I am giving away and donating most of my books except for a few of my favorites.

Smart Shopping

If you switch to digital newspapers and magazines, first try reading them on an electronic device you already own. If you choose to purchase a new device, skip a uni-tasking e-reader and buy a multi-purpose piece of equipment that you can see yourself using for several years or more.

When shopping online for paper media or electronic devices, beware of shipping. Selecting expedited shipping (regardless of whether it is free or not) can hugely increase the carbon footprint of your purchase if it is shipped on an airplane.

Visit the Library

The greenest option is to not shop and visit your local library where you can read paper books, magazines, and newspapers to your heart’s content and use an electronic device to read many digital items, too.

National Library Week runs from April 9 to 15, 2017, so this is the perfect time to stop by and find out what is available at your local library.

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