If you’re on this website and are taking the pledge to reduce your carbon footprint by 21% this year, then you are probably already recycling. This article isn’t here to help you understand WHY to recycle, but rather HOW. Believe it or not, recycling in many developed nations is fundamentally broken and most everything ends up in a landfill anyway. So let’s be honest with ourselves and figure out how we can help solve this very real problem.
For those who would prefer to watch an entertaining 10-minute YouTube video by “It’s Okay to be Smart” then you can watch it below. This article contains a summarized version of the information provided in the video as well as links to other resources so I suggest you do both! For those who need a more basic introduction into why recycling is important, please follow this link to learn more about its environmental and economic benefits to society.
In the U.S.’s attempt to get people recycling quickly, it became important for the process to be very easy. This means blue bins, curbside pick-up, and posters with pictures to help people make the transition easier. The problem is, we never fully understood how to do it. In our attempt to do the right thing for the world, we began recycling everything we believed could work. Old pizza boxes with grease? “Well it’s made of cardboard, so it’s recyclable”. A plastic Starbucks cup with coffee stains? “This is plastic and it says recyclable on the bottom, so this is okay to put in the blue bin”. If you are asking yourself these questions then you are already ahead of the game. However, you are still probably doing more harm than good.
When in doubt, throw it out. This might sound strange but it’s true. Any time we “recycle” something that has food scraps, isn’t put in the right bin, or was never meant to be recycled at all, we are likely causing an entire batch of recyclable products to be thrown away. This has become such a real problem in the U.S. that the only economical way to sort through this mess was to send our recyclables overseas to countries like China and Malaysia to be cleaned and sorted. However, in most cases they ended up in landfills there anyway. Why?
In 2018 and 2019 many of these countries stopped accepting “recyclables” from countries like the U.S., Australia, Canada, and many European nations all-together. The countries are saying they “no longer want to be the dumping grounds for the world’s garbage” and are sending our "recyclables" back to us. For more on this type of ban from the viewpoint of Malaysia you can read the following article from CNBC.
Time to stop the shame spiral and start thinking about how to fix this problem. First and foremost, educating yourself on how to correctly recycle is imperative. This is difficult because every city in every state likely has different capabilities in terms of what can and cannot be recycled. I am not ignorant to the fact that most of you are probably too busy to become recycling detectives. Therefore I have a list of 5 general guidelines that are true no matter where you are and are absolutely necessary if you actually want to be sure your recycling isn’t heading to the landfill.
1. CLEAN THE CONTAINERS! Rinse out the milk jugs, cans of soup, and beer bottles. If food is left on the material it can no longer be used and will be thrown out. This wastes not only your item, but countless others as well. (No more greasy pizza boxes!)
2. Look for the recycling logo. If there isn’t one it definitely cannot be recycled even if it looks like it can be.
3. Absolutely NO plastic bags of any kind. This means no Ziploc bags, Walmart bags, cling wrap, or any other kind of ultra-thin plastic material. Better yet, re-use these bags however you can and avoid getting them in the first place whenever possible. (While we’re at it, no tape, take-out boxes, plates, forks, cups, etc.)
4. Kindly help other people who you see recycling incorrectly on the right way to do it. Try your best not to offend them, but helping other people understand how to keep their recycling out of the landfill helps ensure yours will too.
5. When in doubt, THROW IT OUT. I cannot stress this enough. If you are looking at something and really wondering if it can be recycled, it probably can’t. Again, it’s better to be safe than sorry and ensure all your other recyclables getting picked up on the curb are not contaminated with a few wrong items.
This article is very different than most on the site. Usually the topics will be new concepts or at least something that you may not have implemented before. But this subject is just too important not to mention early on. If you’re recycling, you’re trying to do the right thing. Now let’s make sure your good deeds make the impact you want. As always please check out the additional resources available to you on this website and if you haven’t, consider taking the pledge to reduce your carbon footprint this year by 21%.
Thanks for reading!
Author: Nick Engler
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