Unpleasant Truths

In the course of blogging I came upon several unpleasant truths. Research into the specifics of recycling led to the realization that it is a deeply flawed solution to our garbage problem. Besides the fact that we throw things in the bin that cannot ultimately be recycled and must be sorted out, plastic and paper are routinely down cycled. Virgin material must be added to the mix during recycling in order to strengthen the integrity of the fibers. As fibers are repeatedly recycled they continue to weaken and this determines what uses they are still able to serve. So the water bottle you drop in the recycling bin today will not be reborn as another water bottle, but rather to create the filling in synthetic sleeping bags and winter coats and these items cannot be recycled. The fact that sleeping bags probably take a lot longer to get dumped in the trash than say, plastic water bottles, might make it seem like more is being diverted from landfill than actually is. It also means that each plastic water bottle has exactly one more life cycle before it reaches landfill. The other thing about recycling is where it takes place. Stuff that’s reasonably easy to recycle often goes overseas once it’s shredded…and it tends to go to the poorest places on Earth for further processing, places where environmental regulations are less stringent. There workers are exposed to all of the toxic fumes produced in the recycling process in addition to living, eating, and raising children on soil that is covered in plastic effluent. There are towns in China that are literally covered in plastic, where cancer rates have soared in the last two decades.

Recycling is clearly preferable to dumping. It makes us think about what we’re discarding. It reorients us to the fact that garbage doesn’t just go away, but it isn’t ultimately a solution. The more plastic we produce, the more plastic is on the planet. We’re not just reusing the same stuff. This makes garbage a bigger problem. This implies a needed change in the way we live. That’s not the conclusion I was hoping for. Sorry.

Plastic recycling





Small Changes

I was having coffee with a friend who took me to an olive oil boutique. I know, really? Why not devote a store to designer ketchup? It turned out they weren’t quite as specialized as they seemed, they also carried vinegar. The woman who worked there convinced me to taste some of their wares and OMG the stuff was amazing! Before I knew what I was doing I had purchased a four bottle “gift box” of two oils and two vinegars. Last night I mixed a Persian Lime olive oil with Blackberry Ginger balsamic vinegar to dress a spinach salad. This is like another galaxy of salad dressing. I could eat this every day of my life, but I don’t have to because they make other fabulous flavors that I cannot wait to try. I will not be returning to premade bottled salad dressing packaged in PLASTIC.

I didn’t switch back to white processed sugar because I can’t. I just can’t. I did discover that the store three blocks away sells raw sugar in a paper 2lb bag and I am committed to buying that from here on out. I also made the switch to Farina, which comes in cardboard. I realize that these are tiny adjustments which are unlikely to make a big dent in my output, but I am convinced that change begets change and over the course of many months I can begin to reduce discards without any accompanying resentment.

What We Don’t Know…

Plastic recycling
On Friday I published a list of what can theoretically be recycled, cleverly titled “What Can Be Recycled.” I must reiterate the fact that it’s all down to what your local Materials Recovery Facility, (MRF) can and cannot accept.

Almost everyone I know assumes that they know the rules of recycling and almost no one I know does. Plastic recycling can be especially tricky and we can’t just throw things into the blue bin willy nilly. I’ve noticed that many of my friends put things in the recycling bin based upon what they think should be recycled. Sample conversation:

Me – “This can’t be recycled.” Holding a number 6 plastic container.

Friend – “Sure it can. It’s plastic. Look, there’s the little arrowy thing.” Holding a number 6 plastic container.

Me – “It’s plastic, but it’s number 6 plastic, which they don’t take.”

Friend – “I put those in all the time. Obviously they take them.”

Me – “How is that obvious? If it’s something they don’t take they just send it to landfill.”

Friend – “Fine, if they want to send it to landfill, it’s on them.”

And there is the crux of it. We want to believe that it’s being recycled and if it’s not, we don’t really want to know. It’s like cheating on our taxes, here are my receipts do what you want with them. We’re willing to recycle maybe even compost, but please lay off the details just tell me where to wheel the bin on Tuesdays.

Look, I know it sounds hair-splity, but things that seem perfectly benign can cause recycling facilities endless headaches. The Boulder County Recycling Center in Colorado can’t take shredded paper because there is no way for their conveyor sorting system to recognize it. Once it’s wet, it actually jams their whatsis. Other MRFs have no problem with it. I used to flatten my tinfoil, but that actually makes it far less recognizable to the sorting machines. It’s better to ball it up. Don’t flatten plastic containers completely either. If they lose their third dimension, they are mistaken for paper by the machines. These are just examples. Find out if your MRF has rules about colors of plastic and/or glass, standards of cleanliness – should all yogurt be rinsed from the plastic container? How much shampoo residue is ok? Obviously, if it has to be too clean you may end up wasting more water than it’s worth.

Getting back to the imaginary conversation that opened this post:

This is the universal recycling symbolInternational Recyling Symbol
This is the resin identification code PETEwhich is used to indicate the predominant plastic material used in manufacture. The purpose of this symbol is to assist recyclers with sorting the collected materials, but it does not necessarily mean that the product/packaging can be recycled through domestic curbside collection.

What’s my point? The resin identification code doesn’t tell you that the material is recyclable, but it does provide the information you need to know if your local Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) will take it. MRFs usually provide detailed instructions on what they can and cannot recycle. It is then up to us to keep our recycling free of unsuitable materials.

Not enough education is provided to consumers about the specifics in their area and we consequently throw things in the recycling bin that not only don’t get recycled, they contaminate the sorting process and cause reusable materials to be land filled. Let’s not do that.

Just Draw Me A Map

20140131_145118There is no curbside blue cart recycling at my building. In Chicago the Department of Streets and Sanitation provides bi-weekly recycling for single family homes and multi-unit buildings with four or fewer units. I live in a 9 unit building. I used to take my recycling over to a neighborhood drop off center, but they closed it. I don’t completely blame them I mean I saw people dumping old furniture there, possibly bodies, who knows? But they didn’t leave any information on other options and being a sometimes unfocused person I accomplished as much of the task as I could. I threw the recycling in my car.

Time passed and I threw more recycling in my car. I had to move it around all the time to accommodate passengers, while assuring them that it wasn’t garbage. Okay I guess, but I mean if someone’s getting a ride in your car do they really have a right to question you about the quality of the accommodations? When someone passed up a ride in my car in favor of the bus, in January, in Chicago, I realized that it wasn’t them acting weird, it was me. I was garbage-car woman. This is the really embarrassing part, all I did was google recycling Chicago and I got a list of Chicago Recycling Drop Off Centers. The one closest to me is like really close. But see I didn’t know that. I’m willing to cooperate. I just need totally explicit instructions and zero obstacles.

Wherever you are you should be able to find a recycling center nearby. Maybe not in like Montana, I don’t know, Google it. I’m sorry I can’t give out information for the whole country. I will list all of the local resources I discover. Chicago’s is above. If drop off recycling won’t work for you for whatever reason you can have a recycling program instituted in your greater than 4 unit building in Chicago. The program has some requirements, there’s some paperwork and you’ll need the cooperation of your neighbors. Recycling for Multi-Unit Residential Buildings link.

I’m trying to gain admittance to a Recycling Sorting Facility also known as a Material Recovery Facility or MRF. Actually, my goal is to get me and my video camera in. So far I haven’t received an invitation, but I will pester and annoy until something happens. It is an even more daunting task to get in to see a landfill site, it’s like asking to see The Ark of the Covenant. I will report my findings.

I’m photographing my garbage as promised. In the meantime my trash can is videoing itself.