Next to lowering the thermostat and switching to energy efficient lightbulbs, recycling is one of the easiest ways we can practice environmental savvy. Everywhere you go, the mall, the library, street corners, amusement parks, recycling bins are a common fixture. I remember as a child, my mom separated and washed all our used plastics, drove us to a recycling center, and we would dispense each piece according to their recycling code.
Nowadays, I throw all plastics, glass, and paper into my blue curbside trash bin. I feel like I’m really doing my part, being mindful and effective about reducing my carbon footprint. Unfortunately, I realized recently I’m actually a culprit of recycling contamination.
Away to where?
According to the Environmental Protection Agency, we recycle 34% of all trash we generate. Word on the street is that we can potentially recycle 75% of our trash. Can you even imagine how much trash that is? Per the SFC’s Green Leader Training only 10 tons of it is furniture we throw away-furniture which is large and bulky- yet no where near the sizable loss of recyclable materials.
Of 254 million tons of trash, 167 million tons ends up in landfills and incinerators. That’s the weight equivalent of 835,000 blue whales! Inversely, we reduced carbon emissions by one million blue whales by recycling a mere 34% of all our trash. Not until we look back onto a single year, do we realize how vast and how intensely our efforts effect the earth’s future.
Symbiotic recycling with China
Turns out China and the US have a recycling relationship. We ship our recyclable goods to China, like scrap metal and plastic, and they process the recycling and generate new merchandise. However, poorly sorted and dirty recyclables consistently have, and currently, threaten this economic cycle.
In effort to curb this inefficiency, China implemented Operation Green Fence in 2013 which reserves the right to reject our shipping containers full of materials too dirty to recycle economically. Considering that “since 2007 recyclables have been one of the largest exported materials to China” (What Operation Green Fence has Meant for Recycling, Waste360.com, Feb 10, 2016), it’s in our best interest to wash and correctly sort recycling in our daily lives.
Dirty deep loss
Recycling contamination occurs when submitted recyclables are too full of food, unusable trash, and improperly sorted to process into reusable raw goods. Unfortunately, “recycling is tied to commodity prices, which tend to fluctuate. Currently low oil prices mean it’s cheaper right now to manufacture new plastic than recycle used plastic” (Shrinking Our Waste, greenamerica.org [Green Business Network], Summer 2016). Contaminated recyclables means lost profit for recycling companies, thus essentially becoming super sad trashy trash no one wants.
If a company can make a better profit by sending dirty materials to the landfill or incinerator, then that is what will happen. Profit over people will always be a challenge, but perhaps we as individuals can have a ‘trickle up’ effect by rethinking our significance in the larger trash cycle.
Be the recycler you want to see
I no longer toss absolutely everything into recycling. Soiled napkins and waxy milk cartons no longer contaminate my bin although it saddens me to just trash it. Learn about what goes in Los Angeles' blue bin, as well as the big picture cycle of reusing materials. I now understand the larger implications of my actions and feel more confident that I’m doing the right thing. I will also continue to restore furniture, buy organic, recycle scrap fabric, shop local, and gift away my cotton and latex leftovers for others to reuse. These are all small choices that add up to a fulfilling eco-friendly lifestyle, and green upholstery is definitely one other decision I can help you with. Together, we’ll save our lives and planet.