I know the concept of this article may appear seemingly juvenile. You might be thinking to yourself, “Of course I know how to recycle! I do it everyday, you just throw the plastic in the bin and forget about it forever!” Well, let me tell you, it’s not that simple. In fact, recycling is incredibly complicated and endlessly confusing. It’s highly likely that you’ve been doing it wrong for years (the majority of us are).
This is due to a plethora of factors—including a deregulated process that varies city to city, a labeling system that does not aid consumers, and a total lack of proper education around responsible recycling measures. All this, while the onus to save the planet is placed on the individual, rather than on corporations with the biggest carbon-footprints!
Below, I speak with Tyler Simmons, the Zero Waste Coordinator for EcoAction Partners, a Colorado-based nonprofit that conducts sustainability research, seeks to mitigate carbon emissions, and provides local waste-reduction programming. He helps us break it all down—from the big picture to the nitty-gritty!
Linne: Can you explain why recycling regulations and guidelines are SO different, county to county and state to state?
Tyler: The local recycling service, that either you or your town subscribes to, determines the guidelines for what can be recycled. Limits on the resources each unique recycling business has at their disposal constricts the services they provide. This is why you’ll find that larger cities often have better recycling services than remote towns, but it’s not always the case.
Because I came from NYC, I was surprised to learn that milk cartons are not recycled everywhere. It seems like there are a lot of items with the “recycle” symbol that can’t actually be recycled in many places. Why is this?
The “recycle symbol” is very confusing, and the industry usage for such symbols is to label materials by their resin of origin—which doesn’t always mean that an item is recyclable. To use your example, a waxy Tetra Pak milk carton is made from a mix of various materials, and separating those materials may be very difficult. Other things like #6 polystyrene items (a foamy form of plastic, like packing peanuts) have never been recyclable on a large scale because the material lacks in value. For something to be recyclable it needs to be valuable and easily dealt with on both a local and global scale.
Why do you think such a small percentage of plastics are actually getting recycled? Is the barrier to understanding/ accessing recycling too high? Is the general public not informed enough?
All of the above. The lack of education on the consuming side, and the lack of infrastructure on the recycling side, both contribute to more plastics being sent to landfill. The biggest barrier is that the corporations producing plastic have no responsibility to support recycling systems. The responsibility is placed entirely on the consumers.
What You Need to Know…
What are the top things individuals are doing wrong when it comes to recycling?
“Wishful recycling” is when an individual is unsure of an item’s recyclability and they choose to try anyway. This “wishful recycling” can make sorting the single stream items that a recycling business will receive more difficult and often prompts contaminated loads of materials to be landfilled. Take, for example, a plastic bag. Sure, the low density polyethylene the bag is made of is recyclable, however the shape of the bag is tough for sorting machines to pick up on. A few plastic bags can cause those machines to jam and break, and repairs are a large cost to recyclers.
How important is it that we actually separate all different types of materials?
It depends on where you live. Out here, in southwestern Colorado, our small recyclers don’t have some of the state-of-the-art systems for sorting materials that other larger recyclers would have. Single stream recycling (a process in which all recycled materials are mixed together in a collection truck, instead of the responsibility to sort and separate materials being placed on the depositor), has placed a massive amount of pressure on recycling correctly. Before single stream recycling, participants had to sort their materials into different bins making it much easier for those materials to be dealt with.
How important is it for a carton/ bottle/ container/ etc. to be fully rinsed and cleaned? For example, if there is a leftover piece of scallion at the bottom of my pad thai container, what will happen?
You have to think about it from the future producer’s perspective. What is the container made of? If you are trying to make more paper containers out of paper containers, than any oils or greases in the overall mix of materials becomes unwanted constituents. Dealing with contamination can be costly and the finished product may be less valuable. Recycling is a business, right?
Is it really true that if a batch of recycled materials is contaminated with non-recyclables, the whole lot is then thrown away?
Yes, depending on the recycling business you subscribe to—if a load of waste is too contaminated, the costs of sorting may outweigh the value of recycling those materials.
The Big Picture…
What do you wish more people understood about recycling?
It is a broken system. We need to push the responsibility back to the producers. Those corporations are making massive profits and can afford to take responsibility for the waste they are pumping out into the world. Until then, we need to support our recycling businesses by being the best recyclers we can be.
Can an individual or a single community even make a difference? Or, do we really need to see a more top-down approach from corporations and governments?
I believe we need action at all levels. We all have to work together to solve this problem. Currently, all of the responsibility is placed on consumers and I think a massive difference could be made if producers helped shoulder the load.
So, What Does It All Mean?
Well, that’s a great question, isn’t it? Just because we, as individuals, can’t make much of a difference, doesn’t mean we should stop trying.
There are organizations out there proposing effective solutions to various issues throughout the chain of recycling. For example, the How2Recycle program was developed to combat the problem of labeling. The program has partnered with hundreds of brands—including some of your favorites like Milk Makeup and Burt’s Bees—to create a streamlined labeling system with easy-to-follow, how-to-recycle instructions for product packaging. Though How2Recycle is an incredible initiative, the very existence of programs like these continues to place the burden on the individual, while letting the real power players walk shamelessly free.
William MacAskill, a Philosophy professor and researcher at Oxford University, outlines a theory in his book, Doing Good Better: Effective Altruism and a Radical New Way to Make a Difference, that is adjacently applicable. He argues that individual consumption is much less important than lobbying. For example, donating $20 to an environmental cause is more effective than going out of your way to use a paper straw. In MacAskill’s worldview, though the burden is still on the individual to make the altruistic choice to donate money, the burden to make significant lifestyle changes is lifted and the pressure (through money) becomes placed on organizations whose job is to create change at the very top.
It’s clear that change needs to start at the very top in order to truly make a difference. If individuals are making lifestyle shifts without corporations making institutional change, we’re never going to reduce waste on a large scale. But in the absence of a perfect world, all we can do is our best. Start by seeking out information from your local recycling program, learn the rules of recycling in your area, and share them with your neighbors. It sure would be a shame if your good-hearted attempts at sustainability were going to waste!