RIP Recycling

paper recycling center
Photo: Unsplash

Growing up, sorting the recycling wasn’t a chore; it was something that one did automatically. I don’t remember a time when our household didn’t recycle, so I was horrified when I grew up and found out that I moved among people who put their bottles and cans in the trash along with their spent tissues, dryer lint, and candy wrappers. It’s still a shock to the system when I go to a “woke” friend’s house, look for the recycling bin to discard the empty potluck containers, and they say, “You can just put it in the trash can.”

I was taught to recycle and I was taught that what we recycle gets turned into new products but I was not taught how or where this process of re-creation takes place. Turns out most of it happens in other countries. Or anyway, it used to. China, which used to take most of America’s recycling, doesn’t want it anymore. It’s just not cost-effective.

I’ve been cutting down on plastic containers for a while. I may go a long time without bringing home any plastic, but then I’ll buy a tub of vegan butter or a clamshell of grapes for a hosted brunch and I’m right back in it. I have a few pieces of plastic in my recycling bin right now, and I am worried about their fate. Is it doomed to be incinerated? Quite possibly so.

The problem is serious, and I wish we talked about it more. And beyond talking, I wish we had more solutions in place to solve for this issue. The only viable long-term solution is to make less trash, but Americans are creating more trash than ever before. In a story from the Atlantic called “Is This the End of Recycling?” the writer points out that waste is up 60% since 1985. And in New York, things are pretty dire: “New York City collected 934 tons of metal, plastic, and glass a day from residents last year, a 33 percent increase from 2013.”

Small steps in a positive direction? Few and far between. Yes, Trader Joe’s is giving up single-use plastic and eliminating 1 million pounds of plastic from its stores as soon as possible. But it plans to accomplish this by replacing plastic with “renewable” and “compostable” or “recyclable” alternatives. Renewable and compostable “plastics” are often made from industrial corn, a byproduct of an irrational farm bill. These materials are sold as compostable but many consumers don’t know how to recognize the difference between compostable plastic and recyclable plastic and so dispose of the materials in the recycling bin, from whence they go to the landfill or gunk up the recycling machines (or both). Not only that, but these alternative plastics are effectively not compostable because many Americans do not have access to curbside composting, do not have the time or energy to take waste to a compost drop-off site or maintain their own composting system. And even if they did maintain their own composting system, it would not be large enough (and therefore would not get hot enough) to be able to break down the compostable plastic. As for the recyclable plastic that Trader Joe’s plans to swap in for styrofoam? See the title of this post.

So what does work? I don’t know but I’m interested in what Loop is doing: partnering with some of America’s biggest brands to deliver sustainably packaged products to your doorstep. Ice cream, deodorant, cereal, toothpaste, laundry detergent—all in metal canisters that are swapped out for freshly filled containers every time you get a delivery. Of course, there are still important questions to ask. Are the contents of these reusable containers produced in sustainable ways? Is the food grown on industrial farms? Are the businesses changing the way they handle their waste all along the pipeline from development and production to delivery? And I think these are good questions but I also think that we can encourage paralysis by expecting zero-waste perfection or complete dissolution of large food brands —especially when we ourselves don’t lead perfect zero-waste lives. Want to buy against your low-waste values every now and then and get that bag of chips or bottle of ranch? Then you might want a less wasteful way to give your willpower the night off. Not to mention, the whole point many zero-waste advocates have been underlining for years is how unattainable the lifestyle can be for people who live the busy lives that a work-obsessed culture demands, and which leaves them little time for hitting multiple stores or markets for their zero-waste basics, or prepping family meals stripped of all convenience foods. We need solutions that work for everyone (“yes, and” solutions, if you will), and we need to learn collectively about what that looks like. So, I think Loop is kind of cool. And—I’d like to see zero-waste grocery stores in every neighborhood, but it’s going to have to involve a process of convincing people why it matters, and shifting a culture away from innovation for the sake of profit and never-ending growth, instead of the betterment of humanity.

So, what was I saying? Oh, recycling. Yeah, we had a good run with the myth of recycling, didn’t we? But I guess it’s time to leave childhood legends behind and ask—Okay, now what are we going to do?

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