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

Breast Cancer Awareness – Why I Wear a Pink Ribbon

Finding out if you have breast cancer is the first step in surviving it.

Wearing a pink ribbon is a non-confrontational way of putting a face on breast cancer and inviting the people you encounter to engage you in conversation.

Although anytime is a good time help people learn about breast cancer, Breast Cancer Awareness Month brings it to the attention of the general public potentially giving you a wider audience for sharing information, support, or assistance. The way you interact with people will affect how willing they are to receive what you have to offer.

For instance, how would you feel if you were walking down the street on your way to run an errand during your lunch break and I stopped you and asked you if you had mammogram recently? What if I turned to you in the grocery market checkout line and began reciting breast cancer statistics? What would you do if we were sitting next to each other waiting for a meeting to begin and I introduced myself as a breast cancer survivor and began describing my chemotherapy treatment?

Chances are you would feel offended, threatened, annoyed or some other emotion and would try to get away from me as soon as possible.

Now, imagine you see me adorned with a pink ribbon minding my own business as I walk down the street, stand in the checkout line, or sit waiting for a meeting. Of course, you might not notice my pink ribbon or you could just ignore it and me. But then again, maybe you will see the pink ribbon and it will spark a thought.

Perhaps it jogs your memory and you scrounge around your purse looking for the mammogram slip you doctor gave several months ago. After pulling out the crumpled form along with your cell phone, you call to make a mammogram appointment. Possibly, you are curious and open a dialogue with me by asking me if I am a breast cancer survivor or why I am wearing a pink ribbon (this has happened to me, although not in the grocery market). Maybe a friend who is undergoing breast cancer treatment comes to mind so you sneak out of the meeting and call her volunteering to drop off dinner tomorrow.

Do you see what I mean?

Why I Wear a Pink Ribbon in October

Wearing a pink ribbon during Breast Cancer Awareness Month is personal for me. I am a breast cancer survivor. It is part of who I am, now.

Each morning during October, I attach a pink ribbon to whatever I am wearing for several reasons.

One is that I want to remind the people who see me that breast cancer affects real people devastating our lives and too often killing us. It could be you or someone you love. Breast cancer mostly affects women, but a small number of men get breast cancer, too.

Another reason is that by wearing a pink ribbon, I am inviting you to engage in a conversation with me at a level that feels comfortable to you, but only if you choose to talk with me. It is your choice.

Woman Wearing a Pink T-Shirt and Ribbon Shouting into a Megaphone
Photo Credit – iStock/RyanKing999

As odd as this may sound, wearing a pink ribbon also acts as a sort of safety mechanism for me. It cautions me that even though I might feel like ranting and raving about toxins in the environment, complacency about cancer in our society, or government agencies failing to protect our health, I realize that throwing a fit is not going to encourage you or anyone else to talk with me about breast cancer.

A Mammogram Saved My Life

Saying “A mammogram saved my life.” is an overly dramatic and not completely correct statement but it does grab your attention.

My breast cancer tumor was buried against my chest wall and was not detectable to the touch. A mammogram first alerted my doctor and then me that I might have breast cancer. The ultrasound that followed the mammogram indicated that I likely had invasive breast cancer and the biopsy confirmed it.

I have shared parts of my breast cancer journey in other posts like Life after Cancer – Volunteering, New Year’s Resolutions for 2017 – Hit the Reset Button, and Life after Cancer – Gardening so I will not repeat myself here. I am grateful to be alive every single day.

Tragically, not everyone who has a mammogram and later receives the dreaded diagnosis “You have breast cancer.” will make it through treatment and live. My heart is full of grief for these women and men and the people who love them.

Having a mammogram could help you or someone you love to survive breast cancer so I urge you to get regular mammograms.

Pink Merchandise Exploitation

Pink everything is everywhere during October.

Pink Ribbon for Breast Cancer Awareness
Photo Credit – Dreamstime/Msc1974

Companies and even nonprofit organizations cash in on pink and beribboned merchandise. Some of the products you will see for sale include wristbands, t-shirts, key chains, lingerie, coffee mugs, jewelry, tote bags, Christmas tree ornaments, sunglasses, hats, shoes, pens, candy, stickers, bottled water, party decorations, posters, tools, and cosmetics.

Although some companies contribute a portion of the proceeds to breast cancer research or support services for women and men undergoing treatment, many do not.

I know that the plethora of pink ribbons and other pink items are upsetting for some women and men for a variety of reasons. Moreover, the sheer volume of stuff available ensures that you will run across items that may offend you. For instance, I cannot decide which is worse the t-shirt with the statement “Save Second Base” or the button that says, “I have chemo brain. What’s your excuse?”

However, I admit that I have purchased pink Breast Cancer Awareness gear over the years.

In 2012 before my breast cancer diagnosis, on a whim, I bought an Oakland Raiders baseball cap during the NFL’s annual “Crucial Catch” breast cancer awareness campaign.

As a newly minted breast cancer survivor in 2016 needing tennis shoes, I selected a black pair with pink accents and a tiny pink ribbon on the heel.

Before October rolled around in 2017, I carefully selected two pink ribbon brooches that I could see myself alternately wearing for 31 days a year for years to come. I also bought a sheet of pink ribbon stickers so I could attach one to the letter I was writing to Scott Pruitt, who was the Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency at the time.

Last October, I attended a Raiders game in Oakland with my sister and my niece. I was wearing a pink ribbon pin and my pink Raiders baseball hat. The Raiders team colors are black and silver so when you are walking around among thousands of people wearing a pink hat you really stand out. Maybe no one noticed, but maybe someone did.

If even one woman or one man seeing a pink ribbon worn by anyone or on anything survive breast cancer because she or he first got a mammogram and then treatment, I am willing to wear a pink ribbon every October forever.

Featured Image at Top: Breast Cancer Awareness Pink Ribbon and Pink Speech Bubbles – Photo Credit Shutterstock/hidesy

Related Posts

Resources

  • Cancer Facts & Figures 2018 – American Cancer Society (From this webpage you can download a report containing data about all cancers including breast cancer.)
  • MammographySavesLives – The American College of Radiology (This website provides a broad range of information including survivor stories and a tool for finding mammogram facilities in your area.)
  • Mammography – Susan G. Komen (This webpage has good information but the video is antiquated.)
  • My First Mammogram Dispelled Every Myth About the Procedure – Borgess Medical Center (This is a video of Heather McGregor getting her first mammogram. Of course, there is variation in equipment and facilities, but this video will give you a good idea of what a mammogram is like. In my experience, the technician does not share images during the exam.)
  • National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program – Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (This webpage provides information about free and low-cost screenings in the United States.)