reduce reuse recycle
Hello everyone! Hope you’re having a wonderful week. Last issue I wrote about grocery shopping habits and I wanted to draw your attention to a very well-timed article in the WSJ about package-free and zero-waste shopping. It introduced me to a service in Brooklyn (soon to be in additional cities) called The Wally Shop that is “a zero-waste Instacart” where you shop online and a shopper picks up your goodies at farmers’ markets and coops, using reusable packaging that you put down a deposit for (like mason jars and cloth produce bags). The next time you place an order, the deliverer collects your old packaging and it gets cleaned at a warehouse in Bushwick - oh, and everything is delivered by bike so zero emissions! An interview I read with the founder, Tamara Lim, quoted her as saying, “If you think about a traditional grocery shop or any restaurant–anyone who uses single-use packaging–every single piece incurs a cost, and it’s really part of that individual order. But what we’re doing essentially is we’re saying, let’s make packaging not a variable cost. Let’s actually view it more as an asset.” I find this mindset so inspirational, plus it was so pleasant to order I plan on using this service all the time.
I had hoped to get everything together this month to write about how diet impacts the planet and ways to lessen your impact there, but instead I’m going to talk about recycling because I’ve been getting more requests to talk about this than anything else. But don’t despair! I’ll address what you eat soon :)
Recycling is confusing as could be even for the sustainably-minded among us. The other day my friend and I had paper cups from the co-working space we were at (we both forgot our reusable cups - no one is perfect!), and we walked over to the trash/recycling/compost and couldn’t figure out where it went. We thought about it for about 30 seconds and debated where it belonged, ultimately deciding upon the trash can.
Recycling shouldn’t be this complicated, but it is. My aim here is to explain why there are so many rules governing the process and to demystify recycling a little bit for you so that you can feel confident when you get caught in a situation like the one I just described. That said, the rules differ a lot place to place so it’s impossible for me to address the specificities of recycling in each of the towns you live in, plus it would be really boring to read, so I really encourage you to find that information on the website of the waste management system that is responsible for collecting in your area. If you have questions about how to even find that please ask! Happy to help.
Without further ado, here are some things to note about recycling that should help you through your days.
#1 - recycling is about economics
I only learned this recently when through my job I started working with TerraCycle, which is a recycling company doing some seriously cool stuff. Almost everything is actually recyclable, but most are not in your local recycling system. That is because of what happens after you put something in the bin. First the recycling company collects the objects that we put in our bins, then they’re sorted beyond what we have to do at home - this sorting stage is what takes up most of the energy and resources of recycling. For example, even though at home we can put paper and cardboard into the same bin, they’re processed separately so will be separated into distinct streams at the recycling facility. Then the sorted goods will undergo the recycling process, which differs for each material, and the company then sells the raw material to a manufacturer to use in a new product.
The driver of whether something is recycled or not is how much the recycling facility can get for selling the material - if it costs more to collect, sort, and recycle something than the facility can get for it on the market, then they won’t accept it in the first place. It’s just not profitable for them to do so.
#2 - recycling is in a crisis
Not to be dramatic or alarmist, but we’re really in a recycling crisis right now. Until about a year ago, all of the stages I described above that happen after collection - namely, sorting, processing, and selling - happened on Chinese soil. China imported 95% of the plastics Europe collected for recycling and 70% of those the US collected. It was profitable for Chinese processors to do this because cargo vessels that brought goods to these places for import would otherwise return to China empty, plus there are a lot more plastic manufacturers in China. All of this made the economics of recycling pretty attractive for all parties involved.
However, about a year ago China restricted imports partly due to the increasingly commonplace practice of “single-stream” recycling, where you can put everything in the same curbside bin. In the US this was meant to increase recycling rates, but in practice, it made it really tough and expensive for recyclers to process the materials - there was a lot of contamination (more on this below). China had accepted a contamination rate of 2%, but it turns out US consumers are terrible at recycling - Chinese importers of our recyclables found an average contamination rate of 30%, meaning that it was super resource-intensive for them to process the goods. As a result, these Chinese importers said they’d only accept recyclables if they had fewer than .5% contaminated material in them, which is pretty much impossible for the US to achieve and consequently has resulted in a 90% drop in recycling in the US alone. In countries with less developed economies and recycling programs, the impact has been even worse. It’s been estimated that the value of recyclables has dropped 40% since China’s restrictions.
In the US, some cities have halted recycling collection altogether. Others keep the bins in place, like at the airport in Nashville, to keep the recycling culture in tact, even though everything ends up going to the landfill anyway. Others, like Philadelphia, send most of the collected recyclables to incinerators to produce energy - it turns out this is actually not very polluting (though this is hotly debated) and while it’s not turning it into a new object, it does give some value. There is reason to be optimistic, though - a lot of people in US waste management believe China’s practically halted imports will force innovation in our own local recycling programs.
There have been a ton of articles about this recently and here are a few to nosh on:
Atlantic - Is This The End of Recycling?
New York Times - As Costs Skyrocket, More U.S. Cities Stop Recycling
#3 - sometimes trying to recycle does more harm than good
I mentioned contamination above, and it’s what happens as a result of aspirational recycling. You think you’re doing a good thing by trying to recycle, but in reality it clogs up the whole system and puts the entire load of recyclables at risk of ending up in a landfill. Why? Say that you put a used pizza box into your paper recycling - greasy pizza boxes can’t be recycled because the paper fibers can’t be easily separated from the oils during the processing stage. So the pizza box, along with all your perfectly recyclable old newspapers and cardboard boxes, arrives at the recycling facility. It takes extra resources for the facility to separate the pizza box out from the other recyclables, and, if they don’t catch it, then it’ll pretty much ruin the raw material they’re trying to make from the old paper. Therefore, they have to throw everything away, which is a waste not only of all the other recyclables that now end up in a landfill, but also means the company just spent a bunch of money on the process and can’t sell the raw material.
This is called contamination, and it happens all the time even when you are the most well-intentioned about your recycling habits. I’m not saying that every single time you accidentally put plastic in your paper bin that you’re causing waste on a vast scale - the sorting systems (which, by the way, are done by humans in most places) are designed to catch what can’t be recycled but they’re imperfect. We’re also imperfect. The goal is for us to be better at recycling because fundamentally we’re the “suppliers” to the recycling company. The better we are at giving them what they need, the more efficient they are at recycling, AND the more likely it is that they will expand what they accept in the future, meaning more recycling and less raw resource consumption.
Contamination risk is why your local facility probably only accepts four major categories of materials for recycling: 1. clear glass 2. uncoated paper 3. rigid plastics 4. certain metals. There are different rules literally everywhere, so this could vary and I encourage you to look up on your local waste management site what can and cannot be recycled. In case you are afraid to even start digging into this, I’ve also made this handy chart so you can start to learn what will actually be recycled and what’s just aspirational recycling.
#4 - recycling might be more about hope than about economics
I want to make sure to present all sides of the issue because there are a lot of questions about the benefits of recycling, some of which are presented in an article I came across in the NYT from 2015. John Tierney, the author, describes how at some point in our national consciousness, it became virtuous to recycle - he comments on the “fervor for sorting garbage in their spare time” of residents of affluent areas in Brooklyn and Berkeley and the “warm glow” they get from doing so. While I totally fit into this stereotype and recognize that fully, I think his argument is worth consideration.
In any case, Tierney notes how recycling got its start from a belief that we would run out of space for landfills. He writes that this fear is misguided and that the trash Americans will produce over the next 1000 years will be able to be contained in an area the size of .1% of all arable land - tbh I question this but haven’t done enough research to be able to prove that he’s wrong. He also points out that there are potentially a lot of carbon emissions associated with recycling, especially in the transit of recyclables. He also gives some points about why alternatives to recycling (landfills and incinerating) are not as bad as environmentalists make them out to seem - the former can be used as green spaces (like the space the US Open tennis courts are built on), while the latter is a source of pretty clean energy in Japan and parts of Northern Europe.
Whether in favor of or against recycling, the one thing people can’t argue about is the reduced carbon emissions that result from doing it. Recycling 1 ton of metal or paper saves 3 tons of carbon dioxide; recycling 1 ton of plastic saves a little more than 1 ton of carbon dioxide; and recycling 1 ton of food saves a little less than 1 ton of carbon dioxide. Other materials are still good for reducing carbon emissions, you just have to recycle more of them to get the same benefit - you need 3 tons of glass to offset 1 ton of greenhouse gases, and 20 tons of yard waste to save 1 ton of carbon dioxide. In total, all the recycled waste in the US saved the equivalent of removing 39 million cars from the road. 99.8% of this benefit comes from recycling metal and paper.
The take away here is to recycle smartly - don’t try to recycle absolutely everything, but recycle the things that are going to make the most benefit: cans, metal, cardboard, and paper.
#5 - reducing comes before recycling
One easy way to get around all of these recycling rules is to not recycle in the first place - and I don’t mean to just throw everything in the trash but to reduce your consumption. Some easy things to do:
Carry a water bottle or reusable cup with you
Pack your lunch
Think twice at the grocery store about what you’re buying and choose the product in the more sustainable container - e.g. cans instead of plastic containers (see my last newsletter for more)
Cook at home or at least limit your delivery meals
Really question what you’re thinking about buying - do you really need it? A lot of times the answer is no
Inspect your trash
This sounds really silly, but if you monitor what you’re throwing away and you see a trend (like tons of food scraps or a million kombucha bottles) then you can figure out the easiest place for you to make an impact. For me it’s meant limiting my kombucha consumption and starting composting (which in NYC is actually super easy!)