I was thinking the other day about how writing this blog is helping me stay focussed on making my life greener. I’ve had to become more disciplined. So far I’ve been sticking to my schedule of preparing an article each week and posting every Friday, (which hasn’t always been easy, especially when work and vacation and family stuff comes up.) But that means I can’t just talk about going green. I have to learn how to do it on schedule too, and then actually make changes. Even though I’m only taking on one corner of my life at a time, that steady pace has me feeling like a deer caught in headlights some days. Last week, when my husband proofread How Not to Recycle Your Mail, he stopped at the point where I mentioned how overwhelmed I felt with all the different kinds of paper that I have to figure out what to do with, and said, “I’m not sure what’s recyclable and what’s not either.”
It’s nice to know I’m not alone.
So, we’ve been bringing our office paper, mail, and cardboard to the Dump and asking the staff there about what to do with it. They’re usually very helpful. (Although there is one woman who always seems to be in a bad mood. We try not to ask her too many questions.) It’s important for us to know that we’re doing it right. Many of the articles I’ve read about the business of recycling have suggested that recycling programs educate their communities about what can be recycled, because if the wrong items get thrown together it can contaminate everything else or gunk up the machinery. That can make recycling less profitable.
Since starting this blog, I’ve been trying to problem solve how to reduce, reuse, recycle in a way that wouldn’t hurt. I started with single-use plastic bags, which I reduced to nothing. YAY! I now only bring my reusable ones to stores. But through my research I learned that plastic shopping bags are part of a broader category called plastic film, in which a lot of the stuff we buy is packaged. My husband and I weren’t ready to give up paper towels and other staples because they come wrapped in plastic. So, I was relieved to learn that almost all plastic film and even the bags that our frozen berries come in can be recycled. These days, we accumulate all that plastic wrapping in our garage and include it in our weekly deposits at the dump.
But I have to admit, if I stop and think too long about what happens to the bags next my heart sinks a little.
My hope is that my efforts to become greener will inspire and encourage others, so this end of the story, where our County Dump has been bundling and storing plastic film since 2008, is not something I’d like to write about. But it’s important. Those plastic bags, which are a commodity that can be sold on the market and then used as raw material to make stuff like rugs, bags and decking, to me represent a failure of recycling programs. For some reason, these raw materials aren’t being sold to industries and made into new things. Instead, they’re just sitting.
Many people have told me that recycling doesn’t make good dollars and cents; that it winds up costing more for municipalities to pick up, sort, bundle and store the materials than it’s worth. For our County at least, it looks like plastic film recycling is more of a drain than a cash cow. But I have a hard time understanding why recycling should be a losing program. All that aluminum, paper, plastic, glass, and cardboard that we dutifully deliver can be sold to businesses as raw material. So why doesn’t recycling pay?
One reason is that the recycling industry is trying to sell a commodity that fluctuates in value more than any other. In 2002, when oil prices went way up–––and I used to cry each time I filled up my gas tank––– recyclables were the raw-material rockstars. Industries bought them over the virgin stuff for production and municipalities expanded their recycling programs. Unfortunately, the high demand didn’t last. Now that oil prices are at a low, guess what: recyclables are once again at the bottom of heap. Director of policy/advocacy for the National Waste and Recycling Association, Chaz Miller, explained the problem as “…[recyclables are] a supply that never stops, regardless of demand.” Karidis, Arlene: How the recycling industry is fighting the whims of commodities’ markets
But the green technology that could make recycling and other planet-saving practices make sense for businesses is either coming or available. The candy and beverage company Nestle’ has invested in a green infrastructure. Despite having to pay more, they use recycled plastics to make new soda bottles and such. Westervelt, Amy: Is it time to rethink recycling. The tech-giant Apple has also made the commitment. It’s planning to use the methane gas released by garbage to power one of its new plants. Trex, is another example. It recycles plastic shopping bags and uses them as raw material to make decking. They and the supermarket chain, Price Chopper, have partnered in their recycling efforts. Price Chopper makes it possible for customers to return their single-use shopping bags to stores and then in turn sells the plastic films directly to Trex.
It seems that when private companies join together to solve a problem they find a way to get it done and make money. But for recycling programs, staying in the black is a challenge, especially if the plastic bags keep coming in and they have no one to buy them. Another part of the challenge is that not all recyclables are equal and some can be a real pain in the neck.
Aluminum and paper are two of the top commodities, with paper being the easiest to make anew. Aluminum is a metal, which can be recycled endlessly. It doesn’t degrade each time it’s reprocessed the way paper or plastic does. That’s why over 70% of the aluminum used in construction comes from recycled. Glass bottles and jars are perhaps the biggest headaches for waste management facilities, particularly in communities where single-stream recycling is used.
With single-stream recycling, no one has to worry about sorting their glass, plastics, and papers and then having to schlep separate bins to the curb. Single-stream, means one bin for all recyclables. Easy. People like it, too. The sorting comes later, when workers on assembly lines in recycling plants sort the different types of recyclables into multiple streams on a conveyer belt, so they can be bundled and sold. The problem with that is that there are plenty of opportunities for bunches of recyclables to become contaminated. Once that happens none of the paper, plastic or cardboard in them can be used.
Glass, which easily shatters, is a big reason why only 25% of the recyclables collected in many single-stream recycling programs actually make it to market. What that means in terms of dollars and cents is reduced sales. Plants still have to pay for labor and cover other expenses, they just lose 75% of their product. I’m not an accountant, but it seems to me that a company with that kind of loss on the books wouldn’t stay in business long. Hickman, Matt: Are your glass bottles really getting recycled?
I don’t mind sorting my plastics film, glass, and paper into separate bins. (Disclaimer: When I say, ‘I don’t mind sorting…’ I actually mean: my husband doesn’t mind… He’s the one who deserves credit for all of that.) I don’t have a problem with taking it all to the Waste Management Facility, either. (Um… that’s mostly him, too.) But recycling is one of those important three R’s (reduce, reuse recycle) that could help the planet. I want it to work.
I’m guessing most people do.
Anyway, my next task is to figure out how to reduce the mail that comes into my house every day, so I’m off to find out about stop-junk-mail data bases. I’ll let you know how that goes next Friday. See you then!