The Recycling Quandary

There has always been confusion surrounding recycling to some degree, but currently more so than ever. Every municipality has specific collection parameters according to the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) they have access to, but in general, paper, rigid plastics, metal, and glass are generic recyclables. A recent NYTimes article  has prompted many questions. Get to know the plastic codes and collectable materials for your specific city, town or district – before depositing everything that you wish you could recycle.

Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 11.27.30 AMOne of the main drivers of the recent recycling turmoil is a result of China and Vietnam’s moratorium on purchasing certain US scrap materials. Some municipalities have had to halt recycling materials collections entirely for the present due to a heavy, if not complete reliance on export to China.

China’s over 1 billion, 400 million population has entered the 21st century with a vital consumer class (urban dwellers make up nearly 60% of the population) making our scrap materials irrelevant. Since China is no longer interested in our plastic & paper waste, Americans are forced to take a sober look at what “away” actually means in a throw-away culture. We can no longer be comforted by the fact that there is a recycling solution for most packaging. Any material intended for single use must be ruthlessly scrutinized at this point.

Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 11.30.43 AMThe related NYTimes article on common recycling mistakes further explains general recycling misconceptions common to paper goods, like coffee cups going into paper recycling. Most coffee cups are coated with a type of plastic (polyethylene) to keep liquid from soaking through the cup. Some paper plates/bowls use the same coating. Plastic coated paper cannot be recycled however most paper food service containers can go into paper recycling if they aren’t too contaminated with grease or food. Note that it’s never been more important to empty or rinse all recyclables of food contamination due to more stringent contamination requirements from countries accepting our scrap materials. If your pizza box is soiled with over 10% grease – it can’t be recycled. If the lid is clean, tear it off and recycle it – the remainder of the contaminated box can be deposited in a compost collection that takes all foods including proteins. An “all-food” collection can actually benefit from pulp fibers such as broken-up egg cartons, coffee filters and soft papers like tissues, paper towels and napkins. These pulp fibers contribute “browns” (carbon), to the food scrap “greens” (nitrogen). A viable compost generally requires 3 parts “browns” to 1 part “greens”. Be sure to buy only 100% recycled, post consumer content, non-bleached paper products to insure that you aren’t contaminating the food scrap bin.

Pizza boxes with “small amounts of grease” are O.K. to recycle in New York City. If the grease seeps through the cardboard, the box should be put in a composting bin or thrown out – Marjorie Griek, National Recycling Coalition

The good news is that solutions to packaging waste are becoming more visible and mainstream. Toilet paper can be delivered in bulk to your door in a cardboard box – sans plastic. Seventh Generation and Who Gives a Crap are two examples. Package-free and plastic-free stores offering zero-waste shipping are gaining popularity. And you can currently find more and more unbleached, unwaxed, brown cardboard food packaging on store’s shelves.

Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 11.53.55 AMWe have got to get a handle on our single-use plastic habit. 18 billion pounds of plastic ends up in the Screen Shot 2018-06-04 at 10.56.04 AMocean each year. Opt for buying products in glass or cans whenever you have an option and avoid buying single serving packaging. Always purchase the largest size you will use without waste – and portion into reusable containers for on-the-go consumption. Did you know that any store supplying single-use plastic bags are required to take them back in NY?

Yes, reduce, reuse, recycle – but it’s time to add a fourth R: REFUSE!

“The only way to stop global plastic pollution is to stop it at the source. We must push for stronger regulation of plastics production and demand that companies are held accountable for the products they produce, to spur innovation in how products are packaged and delivered.” – The Story of Stuff

About the Author

Here at Jenny Green Jeans, by sharing success stories and easy-to- implement tips, I hope to inspire and empower you to continue to make sustainable choices in your life and watch how far the impact goes. Contact me with any questions or suggestions you may have.

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