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Beyond the blue bin part 2: how to make your recycling count

Beyond the blue bin part 2: how to make your recycling count

Aug 7, 2019

BEYOND THE BLUE BIN PART 2:

HOW TO MAKE YOUR RECYCLING COUNT




87 MILLION TONS. 

That’s the amount of waste Americans recycle every year. Which is pretty great, actuallyit’s a figure that’s been climbing for years, ever since the environmentalism movement fired up in the 70s. But while some think that whatever’s in the blue bin gets sorted at the facility and is quickly transformed into a renewed, eco-friendly product, the process is more complicated than that. Recycling is, after all, a business. In order for our recyclables to be fully utilized, someone has to buy them first.

The problem is, that’s no longer working for us.

Photo courtesy of Austin County News

Photo courtesy of Austin County News

For decades, the US sent thousands of ships filled with our recyclables to Chinaevery single day. The growing country had a need for cheap materials to support its burgeoning industries. But in 2019, with its “National Sword” policy, China announced that it no longer wanted to import “foreign garbage”. They had enough of it domestically. So they tightened contamination standardsseverelyand stopped taking 24 types of materials (like post-consumer plastic and mixed paper) altogether. 

Now, in order to export our recycling to China, the individual materials need have to have a contamination rate of less than 1%. To put that number into perspective, the contamination rate at most facilities in the US hovers around 25%.

 

BOTTOM LINE: TO FIX THIS CRISIS, WE NEED TO GET A WHOLE LOT BETTER AT RECYCLING. 

Photo courtesy of Wired Magazine 

At UBB, we know a thing or two about recyclingfor every one of our cleanups, we work with local municipalities and recyclers to make sure the garbage we gather is adequately sorted and recycled. But on an individual level, we struggle the same as everyone else. Our office kitchen is stocked with reusable dining materials and separate bins for recycling, but a greasy pizza box still sneaks into the wrong place once in a while. 

So, to make sure everybody's up to speed, we've put together a list of recycling rules we could all use a refresher on:

 

BEFORE YOU EVEN START: ASK YOURSELF, COULD I REUSE THIS?

Reduce is always the priority. Reducing your waste starts with taking a good hard look at your everyday habits and figuring out how you can develop new, less wasteful routines. For instance, borrow products you use only rarely, like a cupcake tray, or even a vehicle. Cut out single-use plastic. Drink tap water. Always have a reusable bag on hand.

Next, train your mind to think of ways to reuse an item before it reaches the trash. Get creative. Use pasta sauce jars as reusable grain containers. Wine bottles as vases. Old t-shirts as rags. Get a reusable razor instead of the disposable ones. Upcycle old furniture or donate it. 

 

RULE #1 DO NOT BE AN ASPIRATIONAL RECYCLER

Much of the problem with contaminated recyclables in the US (the contamination rate has doubled in the past decade) stems from the country’s movement toward single-stream recycling, which is when we chuck all items in the blue bin, leaving the sorting up to the facility. But another part of it is something we’re probably all a little guilty of: aspirational recycling. 

Aspirational recycling is when you think something should be recyclable, so you go ahead and throw it in the bin. Empty yogurt container? Seems recyclable. Pizza box? It’s cardboard, it’s totally recyclable! Wrong. You have the right idea, but putting these objects in with the rest of your recycling does more harm than good. Yogurt containers are the wrong kind of plastic, and pizza boxes are ruined by grease. They can contaminate your whole bin, which means it will all be sent to the landfill. Maybe you’re not setting out to be wishful; maybe you just don’t know what you’re allowed to recycle. In any case, read on.

Photo courtesy of Green Groundswell

RULE #2 KNOW WHAT TO PUT IN THE BIN

Get to know your city’s recycling rules. What do they accept as recyclables, and what do they not accept? Are they single or multiple-stream? Most of your answers can be found on your municipality’s website. Find a guide that corresponds with your zip code at Earth911.

  • PLASTICS are not all recyclable. Throw away your straws, coffee cups, and bubble wrap. These will just wreak havoc at the recycling facility. Soft plastics, like plastic bags, can be recycled, but not at traditional facilities. You'll need to locate a place that will accept them. Many grocery stores have a carrier bag collection point, and some of them even accept bread bags, bubble wrap, and breakfast cereal liners. 
  • PAPER AND CARDBOARD can be recycled as long as it’s not contaminated by food, liquid or waste. Break down your cardboard boxes and remove bubble wrap or plastic windows from your paper. 
  • METALS AND ALUMINUM can be recycled indefinitely. Remove the labels and make sure it’s not caked with food. If your metal can has an insulated coating, throw it out. 
  • GLASS is recyclable in every color and form. It does not degrade in the process, and can be recycled again and again and again. 

 

Photo courtesy of EcoMaine

RULE #3 RINSE OR CLEAN OUT ITEMS

Packaging with too much food residue is considered contaminated and will be quickly rejected. Consider the men and women who transport and sort your recycling every day; they don’t want your nasty leftover curry or tuna fish pouring over them. Additionally, neglecting to clean up your recycling just leads to more contamination, which means more recyclables ending up in the landfill. When putting something in your recycle bin, keep this in mind: recycled materials must compete with virgin materials in the market, so quality matters.

 

Photo courtesy of City of Kirkland 

 

RULE #4 DON’T BAG IT

It’s a common belief that we should bag our recyclables, just like we bag our garbage. But nothey should all be placed in your bin individually. Plastic bags get caught in the recycling facility’s machinery and delay the whole process. So when they’re bundled, recyclables cannot be sorted at the facility, and are sent to the landfill.

Photo courtesy of Greater Greenville Sanitation

RULE #5 BUY RECYCLED PRODUCTS WHEN YOU CAN

Even if you always recycle the plastic you buy, you are still fueling the market for it by purchasing that plastic in the first place. Companies are ramping up the production of brand new products in order to feed our insatiable appetite for them. We can curb this trend by being intentional about purchasing products that are made from, or partly made from recycled plastic. This is getting easier to find as businesses realize it's a priority for customers. 

For example, as an apparel and accessories company, we look for ways to use recycled material instead of new material any place that we can—from socks, to jackets, to hats. The whole idea behind our R(evolution) bag collection is giving a second life to plastic bottles, which are purchased around the world at a rate of one million per minute. Pretty cool that these durable packs are made entirely from discarded plastic, right?   

 

More R(evolution) Bags


RECYCLING BY THE NUMBERS 

Recycling one ton of paper saves:

  • 17 trees
  • 7,000 gallons of water
  • 4,100 kilowatt hours of energy

Recycling one ton of glass saves:

  • 2 cubic yards of a landfill site
  • 42 hours of kilowatt hours of energy
  • 5 pounds of air pollutants

Recycling one ton of plastic saves:

  • 30 cubic yards of a landfill site
  • 685 gallons of oil
  • 5,774 kilowatt hours of energy

Recycling one ton of aluminum saves:

  • 10 cubic yards of a landfill site
  • 1663 gallons of oil
  • 14,000 kilowatts hours of energy

THE EPA ESTIMATES THAT 75% OF OUR WASTE STREAM IS RECYCLABLE. DON'T LET IT END UP IN A LANDFILL. 

 

Photo courtesy of Ensia