Recycling conundrums

In my introductory environmental geography class, the information that most shocks my students is that just because you put an item in the recycling does not mean it gets recycled.

How to solve this problem:

1) Ask yourself, should I be using this item in the first place?

Buy for the long haul – glass drinking tumblers are much more durable than plastic ones.

Much of our recyclable material is in packaging – can you buy something with less packaging or substitute your own packaging?  Over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed nearly all my students using refillable water bottles.

Several large entities (like McMaster Unviersity) are incentivizing their students or employees move to sturdier choices.

2) Ask yourself, should I be using this plastic in the first place?

Plastics #3 (vinyl perhaps containing pthalates, reproductive damage), #6 (styrofoam /polystyrene, nervous system damage). and #7 (everything else) all have problems with potential hazardous chemicals.  Additionally they can rarely, if ever, be recycled. Your best bet is to not uses these at all – and to express your preferences with restaurants and other businesses in your life that use them.

3) Ask yourself: is this likely to be recycled?

Clear glass, metal, paper and cardboard, and plastics #1 and #2 are very likely to be recycled.  The others depend on whether or not there is a local market for the items. All recyclables rely on the markets, and if there is no demand for them – they do not get recycled. 

It never hurts to reduce and buy less of even recyclable items.  Still, you could do worse than dump them in your recycle bin and let the recyclers sort them out, because they will be able to evaluate the current markets.  (The worst that can  happen is that they throw them away anyway).  Getting materials in the hands of people who can use them can help build markets, which do not spring fully born from some dead guy’s invisible hand.  Markets take government policy, subsidies, and the actions of private businesses and consumers to become healthy.

4) Are there other ways to get rid of it?

Can it be composted? (At your house or a friend’s)

Do other groups reuse it?

Can you sell it yourself?

Will a local glass-blower take it for projects?

Mack Glass makes Whomping Willows out of rebar, shopping carts, and – of course – glass.

Can someone else legitimately use what you no longer need?

5) Meet your local recycler.

Talk to them, learn what they do and how they do it.  Most of very open and transparent and welcome their customers and their questions.  Our local recycler is Midwest Fiber.  It offers more services than just recycling – such as paper shredding, community composting, and have shown a historic flexibility to tailor their services to the needs of the communities they serve.  (That’s one of the best parts of working with a local business.)

6) Most importantly, remember that any item that hits a recycle bin is a failure of the system.

It’s best to not use, followed by reduce, reuse, and finally recycle.  As a society, we are starting to get systems in place that allow for good recycling – we need to work on getting systems in place that allow us to take on the first three.

I raise my reused canning jar filled with iced tea in your direction – and wish you luck in navigating the complex world of coping with “old stuff”.