Soon, We Will All Turn to Trash
I rinse out the plastic Tropicana orange juice container and drop it in the white plastic recycling bin in my cabinet. I flatten the Brillo box – I feel guilty about even using Brillo, and embarrassed that you now know I do – and drop that in too. In goes my husband’s lemon Pellegrino can.
I stare at the collection and wonder aloud to the dog, ‘Am I doing this right?”
For years, the United States sent its garbage to China. But in 2018, China banned imports of foreign garbage. Mostly because the almond butter we bought from Whole Foods still coated the plastic container we tossed in the recycling bin. We neglected to rinse out the tomato sauce jar, but it went into the bin. The copy of the electric bill, the one with dripped grilled cheese on it, found its way into the bin too.
All contaminated. All recycling rejects.
China’s decision led more than 100 U.S. cities and towns to end or pause their recycling programs. What that means for garbage pileup: within the next 10 years, 111 million tons of plastic trash will have nowhere to go. Think of one ton: the size of a wild Asian water buffalo. Then envision 111 million wild Asian water buffaloes rotting in a town near you.
Now you see the magnitude of the problem we face.
The United States alone creates about 292 millions tons of waste per year. Of that number, about 75 percent of the waste is recyclable. But only 30 percent actually is.
What’s our problem?
We’re confused about what to recycle. And we’re hamstrung by manufacturers who make toilet paper, wrap it in paper, then wrap it in plastic. Or bottlers of water, seltzer, soda and so on who pour the liquid into a plastic bottle, then package it again in plastic or cardboard. Or any company that packs goods for transit. The amount of packaging is outrageous, and much of it isn’t recyclable.
Folks who hope to solve these issues now advocate for laws mandating Extended Producer Responsibility, aka EPR, that hold manufacturers accountable for how much their material costs to manage in the waste stream. Legislators in California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maryland, New Hampshire, New York, Oregon, Vermont and Washington state are considering bills this year. Massachusetts and Maine may see the reintroduction of bills that failed earlier, now that concerns have heightened over accumulating waste. Granted, those efforts take time. Immediately, here’s what we can all do:
1. Separate your recycling correctly. Read the following if you’re unsure. It’s the clearest, most comprehensive explanation I’ve found of what is and isn’t recyclable.
2. If a bill to introduce EPR doesn’t exist in your state, call or write your local representatives and ask them to introduce one. In Connecticut, here’s a guide:https://portal.ct.gov/DDS/LegislativeAffairs/Legislative-Affairs-FAQs/How-do-I-advocate
(To my dear friend Liz: I looked up Georgia. There’s a useful story about how a group of fourth graders got a senator to sponsor a bill that made the tree frog the state amphibian. If those kids can get a senator to line up enough votes to name a tree frog state amphibian —-well, you know what I’m saying.)
3. Use compostable bags to shop for produce. Avoid biodegradable bags; there’s a difference. Load dry goods into reusable cloth bags.
4. Bring back plastic-bag bans. The bans passed in any number of towns throughout the country, although many were suspended when the pandemic struck. Plastic bags are not recyclable. Scientists hypothesize that plastic bags take between 450 to 1,000 years to break down in the waste stream, and now some scientists believe they may not break down at all.
5. Try to avoid buying over-packaged items. I know it’s hard – there’s so much plastic in the grocery store, in the electronics store, coming off the Amazon truck. Soon, we’ll be living in plastic houses. (Many of us already live in plastic-covered houses; that’s what vinyl siding is.)
6. Think about how you contribute to the waste stream, and try to cut your contributions by 25 percent. After you manage that, try to cut another 25. Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.
Once I read up on all this information I’m giving myself – and you – I checked on how to handle Brillo boxes. Turns out, they are compostable. Joy. I ran back to the recycling bin, dug out the box and wet it down. Then I carried it out, ceremoniously although the dog was my only witness, and tossed it into the big backyard compost. She yelped a little bit. I think it was praise.
A small victory. But a victory nonetheless. One more item was yanked out of the waste steam, to rest until rotted into black gold for my garden. – Jane
For the purposes of this blog, detail your efforts regarding recycling. Then talk about what your town or city is doing to encourage it. And send me your thoughts. I’d like to read them.