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How to Save Recycling

Updated: Jul 26, 2022

Source-Separated Recycling vs. Curbside Recycling: Part 3

Recycling is an important part of our planet's ecosystem. But the fact is that we could be doing a lot more to reduce waste and pollution, while still maintaining the convenience of modern living. Recycling programs can be expensive and it's difficult for consumers to understand them, and this is exacerbated as the United States does not have a unified recycling system or set list of materials that are recyclable nationwide. However, there are ways that governments, businesses and even individual consumers can help clean up our oceans and waterways by making better choices with their resources.

Has traditional recycling failed consumers?

Maybe you’re thinking, “Of course traditional recycling is failing! People don’t recycle properly or often enough. At home, at work, at school or in the supermarket and mall — there's no one around to teach them how to do it right.” And who could blame you? After all, when it comes to recycling, we're all learning as we go along — even those of us who spend our lives working in waste management! That does not mean that it is time to throw in the towel. Remember more than 80% of commingle recycling is in fact recycled. This is better than the alternative of throwing everything into a landfill.

Regardless of what side of the fence you sit on (and I know that some people are more passionately anti-recycling than others), my hope is that this article will help you understand why we need new ways of thinking about waste and recycling — so that together we can create better solutions for our planet's future generations.

The importance of reducing, reusing and recycling

We all know that old saying, the 3 R's of Recycling. This saying 'Reduce, Reuse and Recycle' was planned out to indicate the more environmentally friendly ways to deal with waste. One should reduce first.

Waste reduction can occur in many ways to include:

· Purchasing items second hand allows one to reduce both packaging and product manufacturing waste, go to thrift-shops before boxstores to purchase clothes and household goods

· Refilling containers at bulk food sections allows a consumer to reduce their reliance on product packaging

· Using what you have is the best way to mitigate any waste or carbon footprint, use items to their fullest potential

Next in the line of the traditional saying is reuse. Reuse is an important method to reimagine items that you already have, allowing your household to use an item to the fullest extent. Some methods of reuse include:

· Reusing glass packaging for food storage

· Turning old silverware into jewelry

· Refilling water bottles at home

· Turning a butter tub into a leftover container

· Upcycling jars into an organizational and storage system

· Turn food packaging into upcycled art

Perhaps unsurprisingly, product concepts that incorporate reusable aspects stand to have not only the greatest cost savings in the long run, but also significant reduction in waste. You may need to use the item more, than the disposable counterparts to reduce the carbon footprint. However, if designed sustainably, there will come a time in the products lifespan where it's use will reduce the user's carbon footprint compared to a lifetime of throwing disposable items in the local landfill.

In accordance with the old saying, when the item cannot be reused it should then be recycled. However, we would assert that there are is an additional way to reduce the impact of your products and packaging on the planet. With the advent of social media and the internet you can give them away through buy-nothing groups. Take a moment and search Google for 'Empty Tissue Rolls', and you may be a bit taken aback by what you find. This follows the concept of donating items that are no longer useful for you, that are still in working order.

We would also assert that the 3 R's of recycling really should be the 4 R's of recycling, to include Repair. Many people around the globe discard items every day that can and should be repaired instead. This is true with clothes, household appliances, furniture, technology and even yard equipment. It is important to remember that repairing is both cheaper and sustainable then tossing an item into the landfill bin and going out shopping. While it may take some time, and expertise it is often well worth it when you are done. If you are unsure of how to fix something seek out experts, local repair-it fairs, or search as you can often find many 'how to' tutorials on repairing anything from a lamp to a computer.

Only after you try all other waste reduction avenues, should you toss the appropriate materials into the recycle bin. But before you toss it into the recycle bin, please, oh PLEASE ensure that the waste item is recyclable in your area, and in the disposal method you have chosen: Commingle Recycling, Source-Separated Recycling, or specified Recycling Drop Off Locations.

Disposables are causing more pollution than convenience.

There’s a lot of pressure on parents and households to provide their kids with disposable items, but they may not realize that they are contributing to the problem of plastic pollution and global warming.

Parents who use disposables should consider how much waste created:

· Diapers - 1-2 pounds every time you change your baby's diaper

· Napkins - about 10lbs per year for a small family of 4

· Paper towels - about 25-50 rolls per year in an average household of 4

· 287 Pounds of Plastic- Annual US Consumer's individual plastic waste footprint in 2021

· Each year, enough Bubble Wrap is created globally to cover the distance between the earth and the moon

· In the U.S., we throw away more than 50 billion coffee cups every year. These are coated with plastic to laminate the inside and use plastic lids

· Americans alone use half a billion drinking straws every day

· Since the onset of the pandemic, globally more than 7,500 tons of medical waste is generated every day, most of which are disposable masks

In our very demanding world, we are marketed disposable items to make our life more convenient. However, at what point is it more convenient to continue to purchase disposable plastic silverware than it is to simply wash a metal spoon? Think about all the trips to the store, all the garbage bags, and then all that money you spend sending disposables to a landfill. Is convenience really worth trashing the planet for just a few moments of 'saved time’?

Governments have a lot of work to do to improve recycling

You might be surprised to learn that, as a consumer, you do not the biggest impact on recycling. While it's easy to blame the people who throw in their trash or engage in wishcycling making it difficult for others to recycle, government and businesses play an equal role in making sure that recycling is done properly. Government can help by funding education programs, funding recycling infrastructure development, facilitate the reverting back to a dual collection system, task the US EPA with standardizing recycling nationwide, as well as with holding producers accountable for their actions. Material Recovery Facilities also need to be held to a specific standard, and held accountable for poor decision making as well.

It would also be incredibly beneficial if more local, state and federal politicians had a passion for waste reduction. It should be noted that Senator Jeff Merkley is currently pushing for the Break Free From Plastic Pollution legislation at a national level. This legislation was originally introduced by Congressman Alan Lowenthal (D-CA), Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Congresswoman Katherine Clark (D-MA).

Governments have also been known to take other steps in order to improve recycling rates for their municipalities or regions; these include bans on certain single-use items such as plastics, plastic bags, and/or Styrofoam to-go containers. Additionally, many governments have implemented policies like Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). This refers to laws

that require manufacturers of products with high environmental impact—such as computers and televisions—to pay for the cost of disposing of those products once they reach their end of life stage. Currently there is a need, and in some states a push to extend EPR laws to include product packaging of all kinds, mattresses, and prescription drugs.

Waste reduction legislation is another tool that legislators can use to tackle our out of control waste. Some cities and states have started to enact laws such as bag bans, polystyrene food container bans, as well as requiring that drive thru's ask before giving out sauces/straws/disposable cutlery. These laws can be more powerful than recycling legislation alone, as an ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of action. While prevention cannot always be measured, I believe that we would start seeing the impact of these laws relatively quickly within the community. From less litter to less garbage going to the landfill, prevention of waste should become one of the corner stones of any climate mitigation plan.

Another aspect that many municipalities should start considering is who they are tasking with waste reduction. In Lane County, waste reduction is a division of Lane County Waste Management. The very same department that obtains all their operational funds from the money that community members pay to dispose of their trash into the landfill. Lane County's entire waste management budget is self-sustaining, also known as an enterprise fund. These structures can promote sending more materials to the landfill, especially in times of economic turmoil, where the departments become even more dependent on tipping fees to cover expenses associated with the department.

Lastly, when governments create messaging sometimes the intent of the message is not actually conveyed in the message itself. Take the saying "When in doubt, throw it out", this is a tagline that many waste management departments adopted. The intent here was to reduce the amount inappropriate plastics from being thrown in the bin, and wishcycling, as well as to garner more attention to the recycling crisis at hand. However, the message that many people received was not to verify that the materials can be recycled. Rather it promoted all materials go to the landfill instead. The connotation was, if you didn't know off hand, then its best to just throw it away. This messaging is not necessarily helpful, as it does not facilitate learning what can and cannot be recycled.

Producers have a lot of work to do to improve recycling

As many know, the production of plastics has exploded in the past half century. In the next 50 years, society is expected to see an increase in the production of plastics. Since only a handful of chemical and petrochemical companies are the sole profiteers of the industry, it only makes sense for them to be held accountable for their product. There are thousands of different blends of plastics, and while the consumers are frequently greeted with 7 different resin codes, this does not truly reflect the complexity of trying to recycle plastic waste. For this reason, its important for producers to assist in funding recycling infrastructure, make products easier to repair and recycle, as we as ensuring that packaging can truly be recycled.

More so, as plastic continues to be inexpensive to create yet expensive to recycle, manufacturers and producers need to be required to use recycled plastic content to ensure that the recycling loop is closed. Many states have created extensive laws to start holding plastic manufacturers accountable for their product, we can only hope that these laws are expanded throughout the United States, revised when needed, and enforced. Our planet is worth protecting, and it is up to everyone including companies to start working towards better solutions.

Producers should help close the recycling loop as well through the use of recycled materials. This does not only extend through to plastic, but to all materials. Producers need to also consider alternatives to harmful materials, and instead start to transition back to metal and glass for production, rather than relying so heavily on the use of plastics.

Sellers of renewable energy and reusable goods should help pay for waste management

A circular economy is an approach to resource management that aims to reduce waste and pollution by making products, energy, materials and services available that are restorative or regenerative by design. By creating a closed loop of use and reuse, the economy will be more efficient with resources, less reliant on non-renewable sources, and is less harmful to the planet, This is compared to the status quo where the economy is dependent on the destruction of the planet for continued growth. The focus is on reducing the depletion of natural resources while promoting reusability, repairability and recyclability at every stage of a product's life cycle —from conception through production and disposal. The consideration of an item’s afterlife is an important paradigm shift that needs to be central to the future of any economy if we are to start correcting our wasteful ways.

The benefits of a circular economy are many: it creates jobs; it reduces greenhouse gas emissions; it conserves water; it reduces air pollution; it generates income from previously discarded materials; it preserves biodiversity; it improves human health due to cleaner air & water quality... The list goes on! Making this happen will require the governments around the world put policies in place that support circular economies and recycling efforts such as increasing landfill fees (to encourage people not throwing away trash) or providing tax incentives for businesses, producers, and even large events that take part in recycling and overall waste reduction programs.

Consumers need more education about recycling

As a consumer, you have the power to make a difference by being informed about recycling. The more you know about what can and additional community recycling resources, the more likely it is that you will do your part in helping clean up our planet. In addition to educating yourself on what can and cannot be recycled, it is also important for consumers to understand how much of a difference they make in the world. The simple act of saying “No Thank You” to disposables will help you reduce your plastic footprint as well as carbon footprint. Furthermore, parents who model appropriate waste reduction techniques in front of their children, the further impacts they can have on making a difference in how the future continues to cope with waste.

If everyone were responsible for properly disposing of their own waste, recycling as much as possible, and composting food waste we could all enjoy a better tomorrow. With all this being said however; there are some things that need to be considered when thinking about consumer education regarding recycling.

The more unified the educational information is, the better it will be received by community members. When a city or community has multiple haulers, it is important for all the information to be the same. When a community or waste district has conflicting messages, it can be impossible to educate others about what is and is not recyclable. When all the information and restrictions are the same, it is easy for community organizations to assist in the education process. Additionally, it makes it easy for passionate community members; like you, to educate their peers.

Along with unified educational materials, as mentioned above, it is important that all recycling restrictions be the same. In 2017, when Lane County haulers elected to remove plastics from the bin, some restrictions were total bans on plastic waste in commingle recycle bins, whereas others allowed specific materials. Hopefully, as time goes on and work continues we are able to achieve a unified commingle recycling list, as well as redevelop dual stream recycling systems. This would allow for the collection of plastic waste in a more consistent way.

Consumer Responsibility

As a consumer, it's your responsibility to manage your waste to the best of your ability. This responsibility starts when making purchases, and is fulfilled upon the discard of the product and its packaging. This means taking an active role in the process. For example, while at the grocery store you can purchase products in your own containers if available or search for products in easy to reuse containers. If you are unable to find products in either of these manners, and really need the item, consider looking for it in the least amount of packaging that is the know is recyclable. Consider items packed without plastic.

"Our personal consumer choices have ecological, social, and spiritual consequences. It is time to re-examine some of our deeply held notions that underlie our lifestyles." ~ David Suzuki

If you don't recycle properly or don't know how to dispose of things properly, then it is your responsibility to search for local solutions prior to sending something to the landfill. This means educating yourself about what can be recycled and how best to do so; at times this may require that you also take some financial responsibility for the recycling, as you would if you were sending it to a landfill. Once you know how to recycle, be sure that you are separating and preparing the materials appropriately for the method of disposal. This will help the entire recycling system reduce its overall contamination. Lastly, as a member of the planet, you also have the responsibility to ensure that your household is recycling correctly as well. This can be achieved through indoor waste/recycle bin separation where each of the various bins have images and descriptions of what goes into the corresponding bin.

Consumers also have the ability to enact legislative and corporate change. If every consumer wrote to their legislators demanding systemic change in waste management, and proper funding, we would start to see laws enacted that better preserve materials and protect our planet. Some of the laws could include extended producer laws, infrastructure development, improved funding, unified messaging, and a unified collection list. Corporations follow what consumers want, knowing that without their customers they would fall into obscurity. If consumers were to demand change, and boycott when change is not enacted, businesses would have no choice but to start responding.

Finally, for recycling to work, the loop has to be closed. This means that the use of recycled materials in products and packaging needs to increase, a demand that consumers can make through letters and their purchases. Its also important to keep in mind that products made from virgin materials or packaged in virgin materials, it has a significantly higher carbon footprint than it’s recycled counterpart.

The last word

It’s important to keep in mind that recycling isn’t really a waste-management problem. It is a consumer education problem—one that we all need to be part of. Responsibility plays an important role in making sure materials are properly recycled and disposed of, but so does government regulation, business innovation, and individual knowledge about what happens with our waste. If we are to tackle the waste problem the world is facing, we must all take responsibility for it-from producers to legislators to consumers. Recycling needs proper funding, consumer education and better communication between businesses and consumers if it's going to succeed in the long-term.


By supporting us, you are helping us protect the environment through source-separated plastics recycling, educating the Pacific Northwest regarding the impact of waste, and overall waste prevention. We are sustained by supporters like you, Thank you! Please consider supporting us today with a monetary donation, or sign up to become a volunteer.

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