When Is A Solution NOT A Solution?

Photo by Hermes Rivera, Unsplash

If you’d like to read the article by Maggie Koerth that inspired this post, you can find it here.

There was a time, not too long ago, where I thought I was doing the right thing. Our apartment started a single stream recycling program, which seemed easy enough to take part in – just dump everything into a bag and place it in the dumpster. Right? Then, in September 2020, during a Zoom call with Stefanie Powers, I mentioned single stream recycling as a potential solution to another listener’s lack of recycling at her apartment. She advised me to look into the subject and decide for myself if it’s worth it. I took her words to heart and in my research I learned something quite disappointing – single stream recycling really doesn’t do as much good as you would think. Yes, it’s easier to deal with, and more people recycle this way than don’t these days, but convenience doesn’t necessarily make things better. Studies show that between 20 to 25% of items sent to single stream facilities are un-recyclable (if that wasn’t a word before, it is now!) because of contamination, either through the discarding of dirty items or through the discarding of items that can’t be recycled in a traditional sense (reason number 4212 to hate plastic grocery bags!). Sadly, contaminated recycling often is shipped to developing countries, where it piles up like the photo above shows, which makes me wonder why we think others should clean up our messes in the first place. Recently, China has stopped importing certain failed recycling, which if anything, will force us to re-examine our policies here in the U.S, and that can only be a good thing. If given the choice, I would happily sort my recyclables, put them in separate containers and pay for them to be removed, but apartment living doesn’t allow for that. Instead, I’ve taken to running all my plastic through the dishwasher and drying it before putting it in the dumpster. I also try to keep my paper items separate even though I don’t have to. The bottom line is, single stream recycling helps a little, but not as much as we think it does; the best thing we can all do to protect the earth is use less plastic.

I know that’s a lot easier said than done, but as I often say in my social media posts, small steps can make big changes. The first thing I did was stop using plastic straws (I use one from The Final Straw but you can find reusable straws anywhere). I have also phased out my use of dryer sheets, which contain plastic, and when I shop for things like detergent, I look for alternative packaging such as cardboard bottles (Seventh Generation is the only detergent I’ve found so far that comes bottled this way and lately I’m having a hard time finding it). In the rare instances when I buy soda (more likely than not I’m buying seltzer water), I buy aluminum cans, since aluminum is far easier to recycle and I have switched back to milk in cardboard cartons when I can find it. I also refuse to use plastic grocery bags for one simple reason – I never remember to take them back to the grocery store with me. That sounds like a cop out, and in a way it is, but now that both places I routinely shop have paper bags, I’m done with plastic grocery bags. I think I reached critical mass with them when I found that someone had discarded a worn out reusable bag filled with them in our dumpster. I tried my best to fish them out so I could take them back to the store but I realized that most people completely take for granted the ability to just “toss things in a dumpster” and call it recycling. I swear I could almost sense Mr. Holden’s presence guiding me as I went inside, created this sign, and posted it:

I’ve also recently switched to container free shampoo and conditioner, though I’m surprised that it took me so long to do so. I was in the shower recently and had come to the end of my last bottle of shampoo when I thought, why the heck am I still using this? I’m now using shampoo and conditioner bars from EcoRoots (and I plan to try Lush’s products just to find the best products for my hair).

I’m not saying we should quit recycling altogether if single stream is the only option we have – indeed, every little bit helps, and for the 20+% that is discarded, there is still upward of 80% that is recycled; we should, however, try to cut as much plastic as possible out of our daily lives. We may not be able to completely eliminate it, but there are signs society is heading in the right direction when it comes to reducing our independence on plastic; there is a growing market for clothing and shoes made of recycled plastic, and the DIY “life hack” industry is constantly creating fun new ways to reuse the plastic we all seem to have coming out our ears. Even something as close to home for me as American football is at the forefront of removing water bottles from the waste stream by way of upcycled field turf. We can change, but we must be informed consumers. Do the research for yourself. You’ll be amazed at all the ways you can reduce your use of plastic.