Every Tuesday I set out my blue bin of recyclables. At the end of every Tuesday I retrieve my empty bin with some measure of self-congratulatory praise. In my mind, the mish-mash of cardboard and varying plastic was off to recyclable heaven where it would be repurposed into something new.
According to the EPA, the rate that Americans recycle has steadily increased from less than 7 percent in the 1960s to just over 35 percent. And while that seems promising, the advocacy group Global Citizen reports that Americans produce 3 times the amount of garbage than the global average. Clearly there is more to this than the sorting of plastics we put at the curbside.
November 15, 2020 marks National Recycling Day. I am by no means an expert on this topic. In fact, I am sometimes stymied at certain eateries and their multitude of bins for different types of trash. It feels like a test on my environmental awareness. But, I am eager to know and learn more. So, I’ve curated a list of resources below to act as a starting point in the larger discussion of this immense topic.
Wherever you may fall — whether or not you recycle and whether you think recycling is too expensive or that we're not doing enough, our trash is growing. The EPA reports that Americans in 2017 generated about 268 million tons of waste, or 4.5 pounds per person. Perhaps all of us can reexamine what and how we consume, and whether this one-time-use, disposable culture is really the one we want to leave for the next generation.
1. Living with our choices
Scrap Collector: What's the worst trash humans produce?
March 2019 • By Daniel Kolitz
Our trash may disappear from our eyes when it leaves the curb, but it shows up in our waterways and wild places, ultimately affecting our own health. Here is a run-down by numerous experts of various scientific fields on what they think is the most dangerous human-produced trash. Parents, be forewarned, there is a word of profanity in this article.
“…our most dangerous trash is the one we cannot see, or feel, or smell, or touch. Hanging in the sky above us is something of the order of a trillion tons of carbon dioxide, mostly a by-product of our voracious appetite for burning fossil fuels...”
- Jan Zalasiewicz, Professor, Paleobiology, University of Leicester
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels
2. Recycling 101
How Recycling Works
By Ed Grabianowski
Providing a general overview, Grabianowski covers the history of recycling like how before the industrial revolution the idea to reuse and repurpose came naturally since the cost to make goods was not as quick or cheap. He also outlines the benefits of recycling, the types of materials that can be recycled and where to recycle them, and the criticisms many people make against recycling.
“The mass production of the industrial age is, in many ways, the very reason we need to worry about large-scale recycling. When products can be produced (and purchased) very cheaply, it often makes more economic sense to simply throw away old items and purchase brand new ones. However, this culture of 'disposable' goods created a number of environmental problems…”
- Ed Grabianowski
3. Plastic 101
Exactly What Every Plastic Recycling Symbol Actually Means
February 2020 • By Brian Clark Howard and Amina Lake Abdelrahman
Have you noticed the numbers in the recycling logo? What do they mean?
Photo by Markus Spiske from Pexels
4. The business of recycling
Is recycling a marketing ploy by the oil and gas companies?
September 2020 • Hosted by Laura Sullivan and Sarah Gonzalez
One of my favorite podcasts, Planet Money, caused a big stir last year when they aired a show about how it might not make economic sense to recycle. They returned in September with another episode that asks the question of why in thirty years we still have not made any headway on recycling plastic.
"There were these little numbers inside the triangle - plastic No. 1, plastic No. 4, No. 7. No one really understood what they meant, but there was this recycling symbol on it, so people just threw everything in. And all over the country, recycling bins were suddenly full of plastic that recyclers couldn't sell."
- Laura Sullivan
5. Refuting NPR's claims
NERC, APR Blog Refutes NPR Planet Money Podcast on Recycling
August 2019 • The Northeast Recycling Council (NERC) and the Association of Plastic Recyclers (APR)
Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels
6. Plastic we live with
What is plastic?
September 2020 • Chemistry For Your Life with Melissa and Jam
So, we get that one-time plastic is detrimental in many ways. But what exactly is it made of? The hosts of Chemistry for your life offer their insights into the science behind plastic and why there are so many different kinds. Check out their other two episodes in the plastic series.
7. Plastic we can live with?
April 2020 • Nick Howe and Shamini Bundell
Scrub to 1:10 (ends around 6:30)
With the ability to produce cheaper goods at much faster rates, technology enables us to live our disposable culture. A lot of plastic that we put in our recycling bins ends up in landfills anyways, which we’ve learned never completely breaks down. But, perhaps new breakthroughs in technology can turn something negative into something positive for the environment.
Carbios, a French company whose tagline is “Reinvent Polymers Lifecycle” is using enzymes to break down PET plastic and recycle the waste into new plastic materials. With 9 million tons of plastic ending up in oceans, the company’s methods would create the means to add their bioprocess to existing plastic production instead of having to be sorted into a separate recycling facility. The types of consumer goods could include products ranging from water and shampoo bottles to textiles. The goal would be to close the loop of plastic degradation and create an infinite cycle for continued reuse.
"The main way to recycle PET nowadays is called thermomechanical recycling, but it is not really a true solution for the end of life of plastics because during this process, the PET is degraded and there is a loss in mechanical properties, and after several cycles, the material at the end will end up incinerated or landfill. It would be better to develop a closed loop of recycling and the process we have developed is one of the possibilities to create this closed loop of recycling of PET."
Alain Marty, Chief Scientific Officer at Carbios
8. Future Stewards
Mentioned in The Wild Wonders of Alabama, Litter Quitters engages youth through an anti-litter video competition between public high schools in the Birmingham area. Students create promotional videos to raise awareness about the harm litter causes. Winners receive a cash prize for the most online votes through YouTube.
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