By Rob and Maria
Our trash never goes away. It just goes somewhere else.
That mantra is important to keep in mind for this post. We’re all very good at generating trash, and then we bundle it up and place it bins for either trash or recycling…and it rolls away. Theoretically, the trash goes to a landfill and the recycling goes to be made into something else—another generation of plastic or aluminum.
It does feel good to recycle, but over the last several months, many cities and townships across the US have been having a difficult conversation around their blue or green bins: what will we do about our recycling? Has your hometown run into this? Ours has. Several municipalities around us have stopped collecting glass, and everyone is confused about what kind of plastic can be recycled since local rules are changing. In some cities, recycling is just piling up.
So, what happened?
It’s a complicated question—it partly depends on the cost of raw materials versus the cost of recycling, and it also depends on the capacity of townships to deal with their recyclables. One major factor, though, is where the bulk of our recycling has been sent for the last few decades, China. Do you remember a few months when it hit the news that China might stop accepting our recycling? Well, that wasn’t an empty threat. We in the US have been sending about 45% of our recycling to China since the 1990’s, and without that route, we don’t have the capacity to deal with all of the recyclable trash we produce. (In 2013, for example, Americans generated 254 million tons of trash; we also generated roughly 87.2 million tons of material that was either composted or recycled. That’s a lot of trash per year for one country!)
The reason why China decided to stop accepting our recycling is also a complicated story, but it essentially boils down to the fact that we were sending them too many contaminated bales of materials—if we sent a bale that was supposed to be all paper, it might very well also be mixed with a high percentage of glass. (Important note: Contamination doesn’t mean we didn’t wash our yogurt containers properly; it means giant bales that should have been made of a single material were mixed with different types of recyclable materials. This happens in single-stream recycling were everything is collected together. This method is popular in the US and it encourages recycling; but it makes sorting materials difficult.) Of course, these mixed material bales don’t bode well for Chinese recycling machinery or their staff time, so they did the most reasonable thing you would expect: stop accepting contaminated bales.
The recycling situation doesn’t seem as though it will be settled any time soon, but honestly, we needed to think about better ways to manage our materials anyway. Remember, our trash never goes away, so instead of generating more trash and then trying to deal with how to recycle it, why don’t we try to reduce how much stuff we’re throwing away in the first place! And since plastics can be problematic on a variety of levels (and it truly never goes away), let’s start with just a couple of ways that we can change our plastic use in 2019.
We should clarify that this is a work in progress for us too. Part of why we’re sharing these changes is that we want to be better about them as well. Heavens knows there are plenty of things we didn’t include on here that we could. The most long-lasting changes come slowly, though, so let’s all try these together!
Reusable grocery bags, for sure! But did you know that you can also use reusable produce bags for your veggies? The biggest trick is remembering to bring them all to the store with you, but if you keep the bags near your front door or even in your car, you’re way more likely to remember them the next time you hit the grocery store.
Milk in Glass Bottles
Here in Pittsburgh, Brunton’s Dairy sells milk in a variety of local and also Giant Eagle stores (not all of them, but Market Districts are more likely to have them.) I love the old-timey feeling of milk in a glass bottle, and when we’re done with the milk, we take the bottle back to the store for a bottle refund. Then the dairy gets the glass bottle back, and completely cuts plastic containers out of the milk process.
Your Own Reusable Containers and Cups
Starbucks only offers a ten-cent discount for bringing your own cup, but at least you will have the satisfaction of knowing you saved a cup and lid from the landfill! Plus, your insulated cup will probably keep your hot coffee at the correct temperature for longer anyway. And we will just add…there is no rule that says you need to use a restaurant’s to-go boxes. Your own containers from home can work just fine and will probably be more spill-proof!
Instead of plastic wrap or aluminum foil, many food items can be safely stored in a beeswax wrap. They may not be ideal for super hot foods, but overall, they are a great trade-in for the kitchen (Rob: Thanks, Mom!)
Single-Use Bottles of Water
These are probably among the easiest items to give up since most of us have water filters and reusable bottles. Though we will say, I (Maria) really enjoy sparkling seltzer water, and I add a bit to my morning juice or just drink it plain. I’ve cut back, though, to two 1-liter bottles per week from my original four bottles a week, and we stopped buying plain bottled water.
This plastic water bottle suggestion goes beyond the recycling issue, though. 93% of plastic water bottles contain microplastics that we end up drinking. This is problematic because over the last several years, the scientific and medical communities have learned about the endocrine disrupting properties of many plastics—particularly the type of plastics used in single-use products. So, we would say we would all be better off with reusable bottles. (However, if you are experiencing a true water emergency, like in Flint, Michigan, or you are near a fracking site, please do protect yourself and your children and opt for bottled water.)
And Jesus did turn His water to wine…just putting that out there….
We buy these infrequently, and when we do have them, we wash and reuse them until it’s time to sing adios. What works surprisingly well in their place? Bagel bags and bread bags. If you’re planning on a handful of CheezIts in your lunch, does it matter if they were in a Ziploc or a bag that formerly held English muffins? Nah. Still cheesy goodness.
Disposable Straws and Plasticware
These items represent really the height of our need for convenience. Most of us can drink without straws. Many of us could bring our own cutlery to picnics and church dinners (Maria: hey, Laura Ingalls did, and you don’t get much cooler than her! Rob: Um, ok.) The amount of energy and materials that go into the production of these items is astounding, and then they just sit in landfills. There isn’t even a pretense of recycling.
The two of us are still working on this one. We do own our own reusable straws and to-go cutlery sets…it’s just a matter of remembering to bring them places!
Sometimes, you can’t avoid the need for something with just that right bit of sticky and malleability, but those moments are pretty rare in the grand scheme of things. Containers and beeswax wraps should be able to take this material’s place in most situations.
Heavily Packaged Foods and Other Products
The more layers of plastic that are around a food item or product, the more we should think about whether or not we really need or if something else could take its place.
OK, now what?
So, to wrap this all up, the tremendous push for recycling in the 80’s and 90’s was not a bad thing but many of us simply didn’t anticipate the problems that our vast amounts of plastic and glass would create. We know that we can’t continue our current trend of dumping our poorly sorted recyclables on other countries to deal with. We also simply won’t have the permanent landfill space for all our trash if we gave up on recycling. Other than burning it all (Can you imagine the smell that would make??), the only logical action is to use and make less waste. It’ll take some planning ahead (the reason why we often don’t have reusable straws when eating out) and some slight inconveniences. But like any other good habit once you get over the initial effort, it’ll be easier. And our planet will be a little cleaner too.
Let us know your tips on reducing plastic use!