I’ve prided myself on how little we toss into the trash compared to our recycling bin, following the rules on the lid. We pack cloth grocery bags, reuse and recycle plastic bags and often remember to bring our own reusable plastic containers for restaurant leftovers. Our pantry contains more glass than plastic food containers, and we use bar soap to spare the earth yet one more source of plastic. I figure it’s a win-win: I save money buying less packaging material, and the earth is spared from the disposal of a little single use plastic.
My pride took a major hit, however, when our local curbside recycler’s new rules came out recently. Forget the little numbers in the triangle on plastic containers. Plastics are no longer recycled, except for caps-on empty beverage bottles, rigid plastic greater than six inches, empty laundry detergent bottles, plastic flowerpots, trays, and toys and large plastic tubs and buckets.
A decades old story rewritten
Apparently, the recycling story we told ourselves for decades was not really working— at least not anymore. Evidence has been piling up, literally, for years about gyres of ocean garbage. Back in 1997, these gyres, composed mostly of microplastics, were first discovered.
China and other Asian countries are no longer willing to take our recycling or garbage. Since 45% of the garbage gyre is said to originate from Asia, it seems likely that while we paid to ship our trash halfway across the world, has slowly made its way into the ocean.
Scripps oceanographer Jennifer Brandon and her co-authors recently analyzed a core of sediment excavated from a mile off the U.S. West Coast. Since the 1940s, the quantity of microplastic in each sediment layer has doubled every 15 years. While those core samples don’t analyze the plastics’ origin, other studies indicate that 80% of microplastics in the ocean gyres come from land-based activities: tipped or animal-raided trash cans, streets and landfills. Despite the fact that the trash was not originally littered or irresponsibly discarded, but rather blown or strewn into rivers, sewers, or the ocean. Twenty percent of the ocean floating plastic trash is ship-based— items that are thrown or lost overboard.
Despite efforts to limit the floating ocean recyclable trash, it’s still arriving from points far and near. Texans Linda Maraniss and Kathy O’Hara began an international clean-up day over 30 years ago, based on work they’d done for the Ocean Conservancy. Last fall’s Annual International Coastal Cleanup Day involved over a million volunteers covering 22,301 miles to gather 23,333,816 pounds of trash. The top trash item is always cigarette butts, with over 5 million cigarette butts picked up during the 2019 clean-up.
Hit at home by new rules
All this hit home for me when I had to toss #1 and #2 plastic food containers into the trash. My kitchen trash was full, but I still had one more day before the weekly trash collection. I called the recycling company about the new recycling rules.
In American cities and towns all over the country, new rules reflect what trash haulers can sell now for reuse in making recycled consumer products. The reality is, if they can’t make money on recycling, then it’s trash. Which is logical.
Part of the problem with recycling is food contamination and the difficulty of separating mixed articles like wax-coated cardboard. An important factor is that products made from recycled materials are not as strong and thus can’t be re-recycled.
Filling the landfill
I’ve come to the realization that much of what we thought we spared from the landfill, was actually ending up there. Handwringing aside, what are we to do?
On an individual level, the solution is straightforward: make less trash. We need to provide our own reusable containers as much as possible— for carrying groceries, restaurant take-out, and all purchases. When we toss something into the trash, we need to consider that it might end up in the ocean. The good news is that reducing and reusing packaging also saves us money.
“China and other Asian countries are no longer willing to take our recycling or garbage. Since 45% of the ocean garbage gyre is said to originate from Asia, it seems likely that while we paid to ship our trash halfway across the world, it has slowly made its way into the ocean.”
Demand businesses changes
We need to demand more (meaning, less) from businesses. If consumers demand it, businesses will rethink ways to package and will devise ways to reduce plastics in products and packaging.
It’s not just the packaging, however. The market system, in its zeal to increase demand, works against the environment by encouraging ever-increasing consumption. Governments instead need to incentivize products that are environmental “goods” and penalize products that add to the waste stream, to not only reduce the strain on the environment, but also to save businesses money.