See if you agree with me on this proposition: It’s easier to follow instructions if they make sense and are communicated clearly. When messages are confusing or inconsistent, everything gets a lot harder.
Hard is the word I would use to describe the current situation with recycling in the US, for a variety of reasons. For many years we’ve been told that recycling is important, and it’s our responsibility to make sure it gets done. Let’s leave for another day the issue of how the sins of industry are visited upon the heads of the consumers, and look instead at simple household recycling.
In the various places I’ve lived over the last few decades, it hasn’t always been easy to get a clear story about what can be recycled, and policies tend to change over time. For years it seemed like the numbers on the bottom of plastic containers were key to figuring out what to put in the recycling bin, but I recently learned that such is not necessarily the case. Now I’m just confused.
In addition, due to market fluctuations, some things that used to be recyclable aren’t anymore. My current community won’t take glass in the bin at the curb. Glass is comparatively easy to recycle, but new glass is too cheap to make recycling worthwhile, I guess. I collect glass bottles and drive them to a center, but that’s not a super efficient way to go.
Because we’ve lived in Europe on and off since 2014, I have two sets of policies in my head. In Spain, in addition to glass, metal and plastic containers, you can recycle flimsy packaging in the plastics bin—cereal bags, juice pouches, wrappers, etc. When I return to the US, it takes me a while to adjust, during which time I sometimes have to fish a few things out of the recycling before taking it to the curb.
Is recycling easy in your community? Below is a link for an interactive webpage that explains what NPR has been able to learn about what plastics can and can’t be recycled in the US. As you review it, you may find, as I did, that some of your assumptions don’t match up with current plastics recycling policies. It doesn’t take long to scroll through, and you’ll get the low-down on bread tabs, floss picks, twist ties, and more.
Were you surprised by anything? I was not only surprised, but disgruntled. Given how large the plastic problem is in our communities, it can’t be good for so much to be ambiguous, and for so much responsibility to be located at the moment when I’m about to discard something, when I’m trying to remember the latest regulations.
I was particularly frustrated to learn how much local variation there is—your town might not recycle yogurt containers, for instance, so you’ll have to contact your recycling facility and find out.*
Since recycling is a bit of a hassle while getting used to it, the thought that we’ll have to do a lot of legwork to determine which of hundreds of items are currently accepted in the recycling bin practically guarantees that our recycling rate as a nation will stay dismally low.
However irritated I am that perfectly recyclable things may not be recycled in my community, sending those things to the recycling facility just because I should be able to isn’t going to help—it’s just going to complicate the job of these people, whose job is already hard enough:
As you can tell, this topic is frustrating to me. But maybe I can funnel that frustration, if not into immediate improvements, at least into feedback that my community can hear. Rather than just being irritated as I put glass bottles into a box for the car instead of the recycling bin, I can express my concerns in a letter or email to the local recycling commission, and look for like-minded people trying to improve the situation in my community.
In the mean time, it’s time to renew efforts to decrease the amount of packaging I bring home from the store. When I’m just buying one avocado or a bunch of bananas, I already skip the bag, but perhaps there are other things I can do. Do you have strategies that work for you?
*Contacting the town is worth doing. While plastic bags aren’t generally accepted curbside, I learned from talking to the folks in my city offices that if I stuff lots of bags into one bag so it’s a solid bundle, the bags won’t clog the machinery, and I can put them into the bin like that. Maybe I can collect the little plastics (bread tabs, floss picks, caps) into a collection so they can be recycled without messing up the machinery. I’ll have to ask.
[Images: cantonga.gov, vcstar.com, wisebread.com, freepik.com, multivu.com]