As a sustainability professional in the healthcare industry, I’ve seen what people casually throw in the recycling bin. I’m here to say, we don’t deserve recycling.
Recycling has gotten its fair share of bad press lately, from a city tracing their plastic waste to dump sites in Southeast Asia, to reports that only 5% of plastic placed in the recycling bins actually gets recycled. For better or worse, commercial recycling in the U.S. has long been embedded into the culture of environmentalism. Reduce, reuse, recycle – with a heavy emphasis on the recycling. It’s become a magic box: We throw in the things that make us feel guilty as consumers, and by doing so, we are immediately absolved of our sins. We hope our detritus can be recycled – and we count on someone else to make it better.
The truth is, there aren’t enough other people to make it better, though. Consider a waste hauler that operates a materials recovery facility in Chicago and employs 700 people. Those 700 people cannot be responsible for mopping the messes (and relieving the guilt) of the 2.5 million people who live in Chicago.
As a process, recycling is designed to separate clean and pure materials into usable commodities, which then can be made into other things. It’s like building a house – you need a source of concrete to lay the foundation, a source of wood to build the frame, and a source of bricks to enclose the home. The plastic, cardboard, and glass we throw into recycling are meant to be like those sources of concrete, wood and bricks.
Recycling can work. There are wonderful examples of products made of recycled materials. Rothy’s shoes and bags are made out of plastic drink bottles. Patagonia makes t-shirts out of recycled fabric and plastic drink bottles. Fresh News Cat Litter is made entirely out of recycled paper. Grove’s trash bags are made out of 100% recycled plastic.
But instead of treating recycling like the resource stream it’s meant to be, we often treat recycling like a waste stream. Throwing half-full takeaway containers and coffee cups into recycling makes recycling a waste stream. Would you lay your house’s foundation with concrete mixed with random yogurt or rice? Would you use bricks covered in stickers and labels? When we treat recycling like a waste stream, the people who haul or sort that recycling down the line will treat it like a waste stream out of necessity.
Each of us can make our own messes better. We can alleviate our own guilt. We just need to treat our recyclables like they have value – because they do. Here are some ideas:
- Above all else, reduce whatever you generate in any way you can. Bring reusable coffee cups/grocery bags, compost, repurpose, refuse to take things you don’t need, repair broken things, all of it. But you’ll need to recycle too, so:
- Contact your waste hauler or local government to really learn what can and cannot be recycled where you live. It varies depending on what type of sorting your local Materials Recovery Facility uses, so take the 20 minutes to find out!
- Make sure your recyclables are clean and dry before placing them in the recycling. (No yogurt in the concrete, please!)
- Don’t bag your recyclables in trash bags (which, if they are clean and dry you won’t need anyway). Materials Recovery Facilities use many different methods to separate resources into like materials, and bags can clog up and slow down those sorters.
- To be useful, break down your recyclables into single resources. Help out the Materials Recovery Facility by taking the few extra seconds to do some of that work. Pull the labels off of plastic drink bottles or aluminum cans, pull the soft plastic windows out of pasta boxes, break down your cardboard boxes and pull off the tape.
- Invest a little extra time on things that can’t go into your commingled recycling bin, like soft plastic films, Styrofoam, electronics, etc. These can be recycled at dedicated facilities; visit Earth911 to search by ZIP code, for recycling centers near you.
Your recyclables have a use and a purpose beyond you. Taking care to treat them like they do will go a long way towards making commercial recycling better. In my large healthcare facility, I am awed by the collective power of small actions and extra seconds. The simple act of turning off lights when leaving a room saves thousands of kWh when multiplied by the thousands of staff it takes to care for our patients. Choosing the right bin to toss food scraps in our patient care kitchen has diverted 27,000 pounds of food from the landfill over a 3-month period. Seemingly “small” actions have great power to reduce, reuse and recycle our global resources.