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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Simple and Eco-Friendly Solutions to Keeping Produce Fresh

Long live your lettuce.

Are wilted lettuce and slimy mushrooms spoiling your quest to eat healthier? Keeping fruits and vegetables fresh can be simple, inexpensive, and eco-friendly.

January is popular for beginning a healthy eating New Year’s resolution or recommitting to eating healthier. For many people, this means eating more fresh fruits and vegetables.

Fresh fruits and vegetables are beautiful, colorful, delicious, packed with nutrients, and perishable. It is as if each spinach leaf, potato, or apple contains an invisible hourglass counting down its freshness. If the sand runs out of the hourglass before you make the spinach into a salad, bake the potato, or bite into the apple it will spoil and you will not want to eat it. That previously lovely but now yucky produce item will end up in your trash, garbage disposal, or compost pail—along with your money.

Unlike a jar of marinara sauce that you can take out of your grocery shopping bag, put on a shelf in your pantry, and forget about until you want to make spaghetti, your fresh fruits and vegetables need a little bit of care when you get home from the market. The few minutes you spend preparing your produce for storage will be worth it. After all, you get zero health benefit from Swiss chard unless you eat it.

Composting changed the way I view fresh produce. The act of putting brown lettuce leaves or a moldering orange in the compost pail was somehow different than throwing it in the trash or garbage disposal. I recognized that I was treating fruits and vegetables that cost money and had been edible as if they were expendable and not valuable contributors to my health and my family’s.

This realization was disturbing.

I decided to find out what I could learn about keeping our fresh produce fresh long enough for us to eat it.

Some of the advice I read made sense but did not seem that practical. The suggestion to shop for fresh produce every couple of days makes sense, but if your schedule is jammed packed, you might not have time to do that. Another idea was to buy only the fruits and vegetables that you know you and your family will eat in a certain amount of time. That is good advice if you have a crystal ball that will show you exactly what you and your family will eat this week.

The point is that you have to adopt practices that fit in your life.

During my research, I was pleased to discover that extending the life of fresh fruits and vegetables does not need to be complex, expensive, or require a lot of throwaway material.

If you are tired of fresh fruits and vegetables ending up in your trash instead of your stomach, you might find one or more of the following suggestions useful or perhaps one of them will spark an idea of your own.

Buy Naked Fruits and Vegetables

Buying whole fruits and vegetables without packaging has several benefits. First, your fruits and vegetables will stay fresh longer than their pre-prepped and packaged counterparts will. Second, peeling a carrot and slicing up mushrooms yourself gives you a closer connection to the food you are putting in your body and a sense of accomplishment. Lastly, whole fruits and vegetables come in their own edible or compostable skin, which reduces packaging waste.

Mesh Produce Bags from 3B Bags
Mesh Produce Bags from 3B Bags

An environmentally friendly way to shop for produce is to bring your own reusable produce bags. Several years ago, I spotted mesh grocery bags in the produce section of our grocery market so I bought a set of three (for around $5.00) to try them out.

It was easy to bring them to the store in one of my reusable shopping bags and the cashiers at the checkout counter could easily see what the bags contained so I bought several more sets. These mesh bags are sturdy, inexpensive, and washable.

Although, I have substantially reduced my use of throwaway plastic bags I do still use them. For instance, I will put a wet head of lettuce in a plastic bag to keep the rest of my groceries dry and then I keep reusing the bag (rinsing it out it out and drying it if needed) until it gets a hole or falls apart.

Containers are Not All Created Equal

After conducting research on produce storage containers for the refrigerator, I decided to try the lettuce keeper container made by Progressive International. I was amazed at how well it worked. Almost everything we tried putting in it would stay fresh for well over a week and sometimes two or more including lettuce, spinach, carrots, bell peppers, green beans, zucchini, and herbs.

Refrigerator Produce Storage Container Filled with Peppers and Broccoli - Progressive International
Refrigerator Produce Storage Container Filled with Peppers and Broccoli – Progressive International

Over the course of a couple of months, I bought five more of these containers and we put almost all our refrigerated produce in them. My total financial outlay was less than $75.

The containers are large enough to fit a head of romaine lettuce, slightly trimmed leeks, or several bell peppers. Each container has a removable plastic divider that you can insert for separating items if you choose, like radishes on one side and blueberries on the other. Mushrooms will stay fresh with the bottom lid left off and a paper towel lining the bottom. If you only use part of a cucumber, you can put the other part back in with the whole ones (without any wrapping) and it will stay fresh for days.

This container does not work for cut tomatoes, onions, or avocados so I store them in small glass containers or in plastic wrap (ugh).

I do not recommend putting these containers in the dishwasher. I tried it and the top lid came out a little warped. I contacted the company’s customer service department and they sent me a new lid free.

Now, I just rinse the containers and occasionally wash them with soapy water when I am hand washing something else.

Location, Location, Location

Like in real estate, the location you place your fresh produce contributes to whether you will eat it or not while it is still fresh. In this case, I mean giving your produce visibility. Humans are creatures of habit and sometimes we forget that we can adjust things like our smart television settings, office chair height, or refrigerator shelf arrangement.

Most refrigerators have a “crisper” drawer, which supposedly helps you keep your produce fresh but you usually have to bend over to reach it and you have to open it to find out what it contains. This creates an out of sight out of mind problem.

I rearranged the shelves in our refrigerator so that our produce containers can be stacked in the middle where we can see them and see what is in them. Now, our fresh fruit and vegetables greet us when we open our refrigerator door. We use the crisper drawer for other refrigerated items or an occasional extra long or large vegetable that will not fit in our produce containers.

Fresh Ripe Organic Strawberries from the Farmers Market
Fresh Ripe Organic Strawberries from the Farmers Market

My family enjoys eating most fruits at room temperature so we store them on the kitchen counter corralled on plates to prevent them from rolling around the counter or onto the floor. I think fruits last longer when stored in a single layer rather than artfully arranged in a bowl.

Whenever a family member or I walk into the kitchen, we see our fresh fruit beckoning us to eat it. We do try to focus on eating the most perishable fruits first, like strawberries. Any kind of plate, pan, or tray with an edge will work.

Potatoes, onions, and garlic like to hang out in dark dry places like your pantry or a cupboard. As far as storage containers, open cardboard boxes or plastic tubs that you have on hand will work. Instead of relegating these healthy and perishable items to the bottom of the pantry, consider giving them a prime location at or near eye level and put snacks and cereal on the lower shelves.

Making a relatively small investment in reusable produce containers and rethinking some old storage habits has really paid off. Our fresh fruits and vegetables are staying fresh longer and most of the time we eat them, which saves money. Besides eating healthier, we use less disposable packaging, which is good for the environment.

You can get going on your commitment to eating healthier by grabbing your reusable shopping bags and heading out to the grocery market to select some fresh naked fruits and vegetables, buying a produce storage container to try, and clearing a space on your kitchen counter for a plate of fruit.

Reader Note: When I mention a specific product in a post, it is because I think you and other readers may find the information useful. I do not accept product review solicitations and I do not receive compensation of any kind for mentioning a product in a post.

Featured Image at Top: Homemade Fresh Salad with Spinach, Walnuts, and Apples in a Wooden Bowl – Photo Credit iStock/bhofack2

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