you’re a good steward of the earth: you recycle what you can and send it on its way when the truck comes round to pick it up. but then what happens?
well, first, let’s look at what the recycling center actually takes versus what is marked as recyclable content, and what those numbers actually mean.
aluminum, glass, tin, and paper all get recycled as is. there’s nothing weird about them, unless there is plastic involved (like your to-go paper cups for hot beverages; they are no recyclable).
as for plastic, let’s have a look.
1: polyethylene terephthalate. this is your common drink bottles and food packaging. this is generally recycled into bottles and poly fibers. this is the easiest to recycle!
2: high density polyethylene. this is the heavier duty bottles, like laundry soap bottles, shampoo bottles, etc. this is also easily recycled.
3: polyvinyl chloride, also known as PVC. this is what toys, piping, furniture, etc. is all made of. it’s hard to recycle and turnes out PVC is a huge environmental and health threat! 33 million tons is produced every year and it keeps going up. it’s made from oil and chlorine, both of which aren’t necessarily green, and PVC is not easily recyclable because heavy metals are added to it, like lead and cadmium. less than 1% of PVC is recycled, and the dang things aren’t biodegradable at all. plus, when you want some flexibility, phthalates are added to it, which may cause cancer and kidney, and reproductive damage. (think about how many plastic toys go into your kids’ mouths.) ps: this really shouldn’t even have a recycle triangle on it. just a skull and crossbones with a 3 next to it.
(i think i’ll propose this to the EPA.)
4: low-density polyethylene. this is your sandwich bags, grocery bags that float in the wind and catch on trees, plastic wrapping. these can generally be recycled into more of the same.
5: polypropylene. this is your clothes. yep, your tri-blend tshirts or your poly running shorts are just plastic. also, some bottles, tubs, and the plasticky ropes. these can be recycled into fibers.
6: polystyrene. styrofoam! this is difficult to recycle because it’s lightweight so not a lot to reclaim (the transport of styrofoam to recycle it would probably cause more pollution). it can be reused, though!
your recycling company probably very easily takes 1 & 2 plastics to recycle. there are several 4 places to recycle that are generally in places of business (when i lived in st. charles, they took plastic bags in the single-sort curbside bin). everything else on the plastic side? a pain in the butt.
farewell, recycle bin! off to never-never land where i don’t have to think about you again!
but wait! let’s see what happens.
according to the minnesota pollution agency, here’s what happens to your recyclables:
- paper and cardboard: half of the paper recycled in MN goes to st. paul, where it’s made into liner board. liberty paper in becker recycles cardboard boxes into new paper. and a duluth company uses recycled paper fiber to make new educational books and business documents. how wholesome! make sure to recycle your paper! (but also make sure that there is no cross-contamination from your bottle of oil you just threw in the bin. wash your oil bottle so it doesn’t get your comingled items a mess!)
- plastic bottles (1 & 2): they get chipped, shredded, and cleand and then sent to a manufacturer. (hmm….. more to this, methinks.) so your #1 plastic gets sent to rogers where it’s made into food and consumer packaging. your #2 bottles get made into composite decking, lawn and garden furniture, and plastic lumber (all #3 plastic, i do believe). so, something that has stuck with me since my hippie environmental class during a J-term at st. ben’s was that plastic is not a pure recyclable. it always has to get made into something a little worse, unlike aluminum cans or glass bottles, which can be recycled over and over into aluminum cans or glass bottles. and remember, #4 plastic – PVC – is awful and can never break down. it just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that fish and birds and even humans eat and can’t digest.
- cars, cans, appliances: aluminum is smelted and turned into ingots for a bunch of stuf like new cans, cars, and signs. aluminum is a very nice recyclable, and it’s lightweight. i’m not sure why more companies don’t use aluminum packaging.
- glass: guess what! more glass. over the past 20 years, i’ve noticed more and more food manufacturers moving to plastic over glass (mayonnaise jars, peanut butter jars, etc.). glass is heavy, so i get that they want to save money on transport, but is it worth the tradeoff? maybe we need to move to the old model of returning your pop bottles to the grocery store to get a deposit back.
(i have fond memories of glass bottle returns at the red owl in austin!)
a few months ago china said “hey, we’re done taking your recyclables.” which got me wondering – are we REALLY recycling our stuff? or are we sending our garbage to china, where it sits in another landfill?
well, actually, china said “hey no thanks; we don’t want your dirty recyclables” because they were all contaminated. there’s a documentary about it that i want to watch called “plastic china.” people pick through huge amounts of waste coming from us and europe, shredding and melting plastic they can find and then burning the rest into the open air. ugh. it’s on amazon prime, so i’m planning on watching that VERY soon.
plastic recyclable prices have plummeted. it’s not even worth recycling. and they can’t even give away paper recyclables. what’s going on? can’t we take that paper and cardboard and create better packaging for mailers, instead of those awful plastic bubble wrap things that have to go in the trash? so now, countries have these recyclables piling up because china isn’t taking them – but was it even worth it then? if they were just burning it anyway?
what’s a person to do? of all the plastic produced, only 9% has been recycled. about this time, we’re sitting about about 20% recycled each year (for this point in time). this is not good news. because plastic is made from oil, which is a finite product. (and if you really are concerned about gas prices and oil prices, maybe you should be taking a good hard look at HOW MUCH plastic is sitting on the shelves at your local grocery store. It’s mind boggling. and the food giants seem to keep converting more and more packaging to … plastic.)
and the recycling itself isn’t necessarily environmentally friendly, when it DOES happen. it needs to be shipped, it needs to be sorted, it needs to be washed, it needs to be chopped up, it needs to be melted, and then it needs to be manufactured into something else. that process isn’t carbon-free these days.
BUT, that all needs to happen with glass and aluminum/metal, too, doesn’t it? you bet. extracting the raw material for aluminum is not very kind to the earth. glass is pretty easy to make but has a heavier footprint for transport (and they break). but think about it though: glass, aluminum, and metal are all 100% recyclable back into their original forms. plastic is not; it’s the most difficult to recycle AND it’s the least recycled product.
let me insert here that i KNOW plastic has a place, especially in health care [even though we somehow lived without it for a while] and i KNOW that we won’t get rid of it overnight. but let’s try to figure this out – no one wants to live in a dump. no one can say they think landfills full of garbage and animals eating plastic and plastic floating around in the ocean and people picking through our waste in a burning dump are good things.
so what can be done?
- contact big offenders: food companies are huge single-use plastic offenders. i signed this petition. you should too. or find a different petition to sign. i’m also going to work on contacting the big ones (coke, pepsi, nestle, etc.) directly, too.
- buy food items that don’t come in plastic. i’m awful at this because it’s incredibly difficult. buy in bulk using your own containers or visit a farmers market and refuse the bag. even if you go to the food co-op, if you don’t buy in bulk, chances are the item is going to come in plastic. but, sometimes there are choices on the shelf. if you see a glass or tin or aluminum option, buy that instead. and then clean it and RECYCLE IT!
- push amazon to continue to use cardboard and paper packaging vs. plastic. we get a lot of items in the good ol’ cardboard amazon box, but sometimes the packaging inside is plastic bubble wrap. contact them and tell them you want them to use paper-only packing.
- maybe it’s time to check your convenience. i like convenience. you like convenience. the less work people have to do, the happier we are. i get it. but maybe we don’t need to have a stockpile of styrofoam plates in the cupboard because you don’t want to do dishes. just a thought.
- invest in reusables. instead of taking the plastic set of silverware, keep a set with you to reuse. try out some silicon bag-like containers. get some beeswax compostable wrap instead of plastic wrap. there are options.
- remember your reusable bags that you keep leaving in the backseat when you go to the grocery store!!!!