This is a continuing series into the exploration of just how concerned we are about caring for our environment when it comes to our personal comforts.
In the previous issue I explored how changing our driving habits could save fuel and force gas price decreases. This issue covers the recycling game and how we enable waste to maintain a clear conscience.
Our conscience is tested at the grocery store when asked "paper or plastic?", we trade our incandescent light bulbs for energy efficient compact fluorescent lightbulbs, yet we buy our water in non-degradable plastic bottles by the caseload. We further ease our conscience by tossing a few token items in the recycle bin at home yet when we are away from home we absent-mindedly throw many other recyclables in the trash.
"Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" is the mantra of the environmentalist movement. Yet just how many of us apply these three words as a guideline in determining what we purchase, use or throw away?
Recycling touches almost every aspect of our everyday lives, from the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, to the products we buy. Almost every product we use can be recycled or is in some part made from recycled materials, from toilet paper, to cars, to the roads we drive on, and even the caskets we are buried in.
Are We Participating?
We have non-profit recycling centers and municipal recycling programs around the country. Many communities have recycle bins issued to every resident and they ask us to separate our recyclables from our trash and then have separate recycling trucks come around on a regular basis to empty them. But do we fully participate in recycling or do we put up an appearance by setting a partially full recycle bin at the curb for pickup? Some of us want our neighbors to think we are doing our part, which is fine as long as they are doing it, but some people just don’t care. My community in Utah picks up recycling every other week, when I lived in California they picked it up every week. I always have a full recycling bin, but in both of these neighborhoods, I see recycle bins sitting next to the house on trash pickup day while trash cans at the curb are overflowing with recyclable objects.
Many products we throw onto the trash heap can be reused or recycled but we get our biggest participation only when there are direct and recognizable financial incentives. Why aren’t we conscientious enough to make it work as a matter of principal? I don’t aim to be overly harsh against those people trying to do their part, but we can all be a little more conscious of how our lifestyles affect our environment.
Recycling paper, plastic, electronics, even cars has become a big business. But is it really helping our environment? The Environmental Protection Agency has set a national goal to recycle 25 percent of out national waste. Only 25 percent!?! This seems to be an awfully low target to me. Not a very lofty goal at all.
Only a small percentage of what we intend to be recycled actually goes for that purpose. What actually happens to the items we think are being recycled? What becomes of the items we donate to charity to be recycled? We feel good about helping our favorite charity while at the same time doing some house cleaning, but sometimes the charities actually receive very little money in exchange for hosting what amounts to a neighborhood cleanup. The items collected are taken away by salvage operations that go through the items for useable products that are then sold for profit. The items that cannot be salvaged are often delivered to landfills, either here in America or to foreign countries where they are not as regulated which leads to ground contamination by toxic materials. Some of it ends up in the oceans! When I learned this it sickened me.
There is a vast expanse of plastic debris, referred to as the Pacific Garbage Patch, growing in the central Pacific Ocean that is held in place by swirling underwater currents. This ‘patch’ is the size of a continent. This drifting “soup” stretches from about 500 nautical miles off the Californian coast, across the northern Pacific, past Hawaii and almost as far as Japan. This plastic doesn't biodegrade, it photo-degrades, which means it is broken down by sunlight into smaller and smaller pieces, all of which are still plastic polymers, eventually becoming individual molecules of plastic, still too tough for anything to digest. Yet marine life is ingesting it. If you have the stomach for it, sorry about the pun, read about it here.
Of course there are some charitable organizations that can be trusted. The American Institute of Philanthropy is a nonprofit charity watchdog organization that helps donors male informed giving decisions.
Landfills around the world, loaded with items that could be recycled, are increasing in size. Besides the increasing number and sizes of landfills being a problem they are rife with hazards ranging from fatal accidents (e.g., scavengers buried under waste piles), infrastructure damage (e.g., damage to access roads by heavy vehicles), pollution of the local environment (such as contamination of groundwater and/or aquifers by leakage and residual soil contamination after landfill closure), offgassing of methane generated by decaying organic wastes; harboring of disease vectors such as rats and flies, particularly from improperly operated landfills, which are common in Third-world countries, injuries to wildlife and simple nuisance problems (e.g., dust, odor, vermin, or noise pollution).
This list presents a very strong case for the elimination of landfills and incineration. Fortunately new strategies such as recycling, anaerobic digestion, composting, mechanical biological treatment, pyrolysis and gasification establishing themselves in the market, are allowing completed landfills to be reclaimed for parks, golf courses and other sports fields. Office buildings and industrial parks can make use of this land after extensive methane capture is carried out to minimize explosive hazard.
Of course, the simplest way to eliminate landfills would be to recycle everything we use. Wouldn’t it be great to have this ability?
An interesting fact: Paper plus cardboard combined make up 73% of the materials in landfills. Does this sound like we are doing all we can?
We have come a long way, but we cannot afford to backpedal. I believe most of us do care about our environment but are confused about what can be recycled.
What is Recyclable?
The most commonly recycled household items are paper and cardboard; metal, glass, and plastic containers and packaging; and yard waste. Recycling the recovered materials is simple for metals and glass; they can be melted down, reformed, and reused. Yard waste can be composted with little or no equipment, as a gardener I have the ability and joy to be able to use this precious natural gift. Paper, the most important recycled material, must be mixed with water, and sometimes de-inked, to form a pulp that can be used in papermaking. Plastics recycling requires an expensive process of separation of different resins.
Speaking of plastic, today’s plastics come in several grades. Do you know which ones are recyclable?
On just about every plastic container there is a raised number (1 through 7) in a triangle that tells you what type of plastic it is. Not all plastic is recyclable. Knowing which numbers can be recycled will help determine what to do with the container.
Some municipalities require you to sort your plastic according to these numbers, others will take everything tossed together and sort them themselves. You can call your county's Department of Public Works or recycling center to determine what type of plastic to recycle and where to take it. Also call 1-800-CLEANUP for state recycling information.
Type 1 (PETE) and type 2 (HDPE) containers include some plastic bags, detergent containers, and milk, soft drink, juice, cooking oil and water bottles. These can typically be tossed into recycling bins.
Type 3 - plastic food wrap and vegetable oil bottles, should be thrown in the trash. While some of these are recyclable, the plastics industry is still in the early stages of recycling and does not recycle these in most cities unless it is through a test program.
Type 4 (LDPE) are plastic grocery bags (sometimes type 2) and can be recycled at your grocery store or thrown in the recycle bin. Most people have a secondary use for these such as small trash can liners, carrying lunch to work, or picking up dog poo. Plus, you can take back to the store and use them again. Clean out bags before recycling, which means the dog poo thing is out of the question.
Type 5 - yogurt containers, syrup bottles, diapers, some bags, most bottle tops and some food wrap - should be thrown in the trash. While some of these are recyclable, the plastics industry is still in the early stages of recycling and does not recycle these in most cities unless it is through a test program. Take caps and pump spray tops off of plastic containers unless they are marked with a number. They are often made from a type of plastic that is different from the main part of the container and generally are not recyclable.
Type 6 (EPS-expanded polystyrene) is foam packaging and plastic utensils. Call the Alliance of Foam Packaging Recyclers, (410) 451-8340, or visit their Web site to find a local recycling center in your area. Plastic utensils will most likely need to be thrown out.
Type 7 - layered or mixed plastic - should be thrown in the trash. While some of these are recyclable, the plastics industry is still in the early stages of recycling and does not recycle these in most cities unless it is through a test program.
We have the common misconception that when plastic gets recycled we will use it again in the form of another plastic container. This is not true. Some plastics are not recycled into other plastic containers, but are made into new secondary products such as textiles, parking lot bumpers, or plastic lumber which are all un-recyclable products. This does not reduce the use of virgin materials in plastic packaging. "Recycled" in this case merely means "collected," not reprocessed or converted into useful products.
Type 1 plastic (PETE) can be recycled into items like carpet, auto parts, paint brushes and industrial paints and type 2 plastic (HDPE) is recycled into products like detergent and engine oil bottles, trash cans and recycling bins.
Of course, there are many ingenious ways in which we can reuse plastic containers in our own homes. Gardeners use various sized plastic containers as everything from cloches, to seed starting, to watering our plants and even to catch water under potted plants. Pet owners use plastic containers to keep pet water bowls full.
For a very interesting article concerning the plastic recycling issue see Seven Misconceptions about Plastic and Plastic Recycling presented by the Plastics Task Force of Berkeley California.
The recent trend away from offering plastic shopping bags in many communities across the country is a way in which we have refined our dedication to protecting the environment. Or is it? We originally began using plastic bags as a way of saving our trees. The slogan was “save a tree-ask for plastic”. Everyone jumped on the band wagon and while were all busy saving trees by using plastic bags, marine life began dying from accidentally ingesting the non-recyclable, non-degrading plastic bags that were supposed to go into landfills. In the intervening years, paper recycling has matured and a lot of paper bags are now made from recycled paper. But this recycled paper only consists of between 10% and 100% recycled paper with the remainder coming from paper pulp which is made from about 43% of harvested wood. Plus, paper can only be recycled 4-6 times. So, we are still killing trees to make paper. As an option today, we have reusable canvas and cotton bags to carry our groceries. There are arguments that support the use of all of these alternatives but people will always go with the cheapest solution.
Sam Aola Ooko wrote an excellent post on eco worldly just one day after I published this post and it is so impassioned for the discontinuance of plastic shopping bags that I just had to include it here. Please check it out.
How can we do more to ensure recycling is working? Generally, we are at the mercy of anyone who claims to be a recycler. When you contact anyone for the purpose of recycling your cell phones, computers, printer ink cartridges, etc ask what they do with the items, make sure they are going to EPA approved disposal sites. We can also put ourselves in the mindset to reuse as much as possible. Buy products with as little packaging as possible. Learn what is recyclable and follow your conscience. Compost your kitchen and yard waste.
We really do need to work together and try to keep a clear picture of why Reducing, Reusing and Recycling are important. And spread the word.
This is part of a continuing series that explores just how dedicated we are to saving our planet and ourselves from our polluting and energy-wasting ways.
Come back for the next installment when I explore our wasteful water habits.
And, as always, please feel free to leave comments.
For further information
Cell Phone Donation
Who Buys Cell Phones
Cell For Cash
Aluminum Recycling Facts
Paper Recycling Facts