By Chloe Criswell
In a world with a changing climate and increasing population, humans are under more pressure than ever to find new ways of living that lessen our impact on the Earth. For decades, recycling has been the catch-all solution that allows everyone to take responsibility in the global effort of sustainability. For good reason too—according to Recycle Across America, recycling is the top action society can do to simultaneously improve the environment, the economy, sustainable manufacturing, and to prevent waste from going into oceans. Recycling done properly can no doubt be a powerful solution.
However recycling can also be confusing. It is promoted as the key to save our world and battle the growing mound of trash in our landfills and oceans, yet widespread recycling inconsistencies hinder its effectiveness and people’s motivation to even bother with it. A myriad of challenges need to be addressed if recycling as a practice is not to become obsolete. First and foremost, some areas do not provide ample access to recycling services. Multi-home units are often without recycling access simply because it is too hard to regulate for waste services. Oftentimes the recyclability of any given waste item depends on the city, town, or municipality the item is in. Certain cities do not accept items to be recycled due to processing costs, lack of proper processing machinery, or because it is not economically viable to recycle the material. This is especially true of most plastics.
As of January 2018, China, the recipient of 45% of the world’s plastic for recycling, has refused to accept imports of plastic waste and contaminated paper products any longer, citing the need to protect the environment and human health. High volumes of paper and plastics being collected for recycling have overwhelmed recycling plants and processes both domestically and globally. While paper and plastic is still considered “recyclable” by definition, in reality, much of the paper and plastic we recycle ends up in the landfill. Plastic really can’t be recycled in the way that an aluminum can is. According to the American Chemistry Council, recycled plastics are made into consumer products such as carpeting and fleece jackets, but the vast majority of plastics are simply landfilled. In the case of paper, any moisture or food particles that come into contact with paper contaminate it, yet many cities have one container for all recyclables. This effectively renders paper unrecyclable due to moisture and food residues from food containers leaking onto the paper and contaminating it. While cities with curbside pickups may still accept these items currently, it is a fair assumption that both recycled plastic and paper items may very well end up in the landfill. This effectively renders the entire point of recycling paper and plastic moot. With all of these obstacles, what is a concerned resident to do with their waste? What is a concerned shopper to buy given the inconsistencies across cities? Is recycling dead?
The answers to these questions can be complex, but there are certain facts that can help…First and foremost, the practice of “wishful recycling” can be problematic and does more harm than good. Coined by The Ecology Center in Berkeley, wishful recycling is recycling because it feels good, whether the items are recyclable or not, and hoping that they magically are recycled. While good in intention, this practice prevents truly recyclable materials from making it to the plant because of contamination. As a rule of thumb, when questioning if an item is recyclable in a given location, oftentimes it is best to throw it in the trash, unfortunately—if in doubt, throw it out. A reliable solution for home recycling is to keep separate bins of recyclable items, to try and preserve the recyclability and value of the items. That means keeping dry paper separate from aluminum cans, plastics, glass bottles, and cardboard. Wet or food contaminated paper products can go in the composting pile! What about curbside recycling then, if it all goes into the same can anyway? Dropping recyclables at your city or town’s nearest recycling center is a good option to keep your items separate and ensure they make it to a processing plant. It may be more initial work, however this method allows for a little more piece of mind when combating the inconsistencies of recycling.
Even in the face of numerous obstacles, there remain groups of common waste items that can be universally recycled, regardless of location or regulation. Below we have summarized a short list of items that are considered safe for recycling, specifically in all Contra Costa Counties, as well as a brief East Bay resource sheet for more recycling specifics.
Aluminum cans – These are 100% recyclable and can be recycled numerous times.
Glass Bottles – Must be rinsed and free from food particles.
*Mixed paper – If paper is collected separately from other recyclables, it is much more likely to be recycled.
Plastic Bottle with narrow neck – This includes water/juice/soda bottles/detergent bottles/gallon milk jugs, rinsed.
Many locations will accept more items than fall in these groups, however unless specified otherwise, these items should always be accepted in the recycling bins.