Most of us are concerned with the environmental impact of our purchases. In a recent poll conducted by Pew, they reported that 72% of Americans claim to be reducing their consumption of plastics for environmental reasons - that is a lot of us! But because plastics are ubiquitous in day-to-day life, it is tough to decrease plastic consumption entirely. So, many of us find comfort in knowing the waste we have to create is, at the least, handled responsibly. Even businesses seem to have caught on as separator bins are everywhere, from the grocery store to your local coffee shop. At first glance, this seems like a step in the right direction, like we can go through life without too much guilt for our daily consumption. And while we don’t want to ruin a good thing for you, we have to discuss the indisputable fact that most of what we put in the bin doesn’t actually get recycled. According to the EPA’s most recent data, of all the trash produced in a year, only 35% of that is either composted or recycled.
Unfortunately, it gets worse. The world experienced a significant shift in waste management in 2017 as China enacted strict bans on international recyclable materials and took tough measures to eliminate illegal smuggling of those same materials into the country. In short, this means that the system created: where the western world created trash and shipped it east for handling, was no longer an option. The out-of-sight-out-of-mind mentality was no longer an option, and the recycling industry was left scrambling for a new solution. There is so much to discuss here; we’re going to go into it in a future blog post, but for now, let’s focus on how you can stay as environmentally friendly as possible within our current recycling system.
Avoid Wishful Recycling
In America, so much material is recycled incorrectly that industry leaders call it “wishful recycling.” Like when you want your greasy pizza box from Friday night takeout to be recyclable, so you throw it in the bin, but in almost every state across the country, containers with food waste, grease, etc., in them lead to contamination of the rest of the materials. Because the infrastructure for properly sorting these incorrect items from the acceptable is expensive and difficult to put into place, many facilities end up trashing the entire bin instead.
What About the Recycling Symbol?
We wish it were as easy as reading the instructions that come with a curbside bin or the stickers on the front of the community dumpster, but it just isn’t. Nearly every piece of plastic you encounter will have a recycling symbol on it with a number one-seven in the middle. Each number corresponds to a different category of plastics. Only one and two are widely accepted (think water bottles, soda bottles, and laundry detergent containers). Of all the other types, three-seven, we can only recycle less than 5% of it here in America.
We know what you’re thinking; this doesn’t make any sense because the sign on your bin says they accept multiple types of plastics, including those in categories three-seven. Sorry to ruin the illusion, but most likely, your county either cannot or will not, for financial reasons, recycle those materials. Many counties have made the active decision to continue to encourage residents to recycle, understanding that educating the population can be slow and complicated. As it is, nearly 62% of American’s report not understanding how to recycle their materials correctly. So instead of updating messaging, industry leaders hoping to find new solutions for your plastic waste prefer you keep recycling so that the community is pre-educated for when a new solution arrives.
That is at least half of the story. But we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention that many companies, like Coca-Cola, have spent millions of dollars lobbying for recycling programs despite knowing there is no longer anywhere for those plastics to go. The sentiment is that changing opinions about plastics leads people to purchase less of them, which might harm business if people believe recycling is no longer an option. Assuming there is a program in place to take care of your recycling will make you more comfortable, and therefore more likely, to purchase items you might otherwise avoid.
The only way to consume and recycle responsibly is to take matters into your own hands and create a plan based on the facilities around you. You can do this several ways, but to get you started, we recommend you give these approaches a try.
There’s an App for That
Thankfully there are environmentally conscious developers out there bringing recycling knowledge to your fingertips. Give iRecycle by Earth911 a try. This app takes a comprehensive approach to recycling, helping you on the education front, and providing a quick search feature for specific items you’re looking to recycle. Not sure what to do with those old batteries in your junk drawer? Type “batteries” into the search box and input your zip code. The search engine will show you the facilities nearest you willing to accept the material and whether or not you have to be a resident of that county to qualify. Similarly, you can download RecycleNation, which operates with a comparable methodology but also has a map feature that allows you to visualize the options nearest you.
Put Your Plan into Action
It is likely that after your research, you’ll learn that you need to separate your recyclable materials more than you previously did. We suggest that you create separate bins or locations for these materials to go so that you don’t get frustrated and end up putting it all together. These bins could be as sophisticated as separate labeled containers or just reusable bags on different hooks. It doesn’t matter how it works, just that it works for you.
The final component of your new recycling plan is a schedule. Some materials might be eligible for curbside pickup, while others might need to be dropped off. Set a recurring reminder for yourself to place items outside by the curbside pickup date and a separate one for delivering the drop-off materials to the proper location. For example, you might recycle plastics one and two via curbside pickup every Thursday. In contrast, plastics three-six might need to be dropped off at a particular facility that only accepts drop-offs on Mondays. For more complicated materials, like paint or batteries, make a plan to store them in a single location and then handle them all at one time every three months.
Interested in how and why recycling is what it is in America? So are we. Keep an eye out for future posts explaining how we got into this mess.
If you want more tips, deep dives of certifications, or access to curated brands based on what you care about, feel free to visit us at joinethically.com. Ethically is a product recommendation assistant that curates brands based on your unique values. All you have to do is choose your values, shop like normal, and we will show you better.