Recycling Crisis: Is It True?

Reader Contribution by Kurt Jacobson
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The author’s dog on her West Paw bed.

Plastics ruining the oceans are a common sight on both TV and internet news. I’m sure it’s a big problem and am doing what I can to stem the tide. Many of us Mother Earth News readers want to help but aren’t sure where to start. Read on to find out some of the challenges and solutions I’ve found to address this dilemma.

When I read a story in the Baltimore Sun’s June 24th issue about recycling efforts going to waste, I was shocked by the amount of items meant for single-stream recycling being sent to landfills. The article points out one of the most significant problems is consumers don’t know how to recycle correctly. The author also tells about China cutting back on purchasing our recycled paper, and other recycled items. Here are some of the things you can do to help recycling centers and the environment.

Clean those plastics you’re tossing in the bin. The good news is the recycling of single-use plastics like water bottles, soft drink bottles, yogurt containers, etc. is encouraged. The problem is, items must be reasonably clean for the facility that receives to process them or else these dirty items are worthless. Think of yogurt or peanut butter containers coated with remaining product, and it’s easy to see that would contaminate the mix when melted down. Then there are the half-full drink bottles tossed in the recycling container. Clean and empty all items you put in the recycling bin if you want them to have a chance at another life cycle.

Plastic straws are said to be non-recyclable and over 500 million per day are used and discarded. Just say no to straws that restaurants most often put in glasses of water and other drinks. Perfectly good non-plastic straws can be sourced from companies like Aardvark. I applaud Ted’s Montana Grill restaurants for adopting Aardvark’s eco-friendly straw. Ted’s goes one step further. Instead of putting straws in all drinks, they place a container of Aardvark straws on each table and let consumers choose to use or not use a straw.

Glass Versus Plastic

Some consumers think that purchasing food and drink products in glass containers does the environment a favor. Recycling centers typically find that glass is worthless to process but do so as a service to residents of many US municipalities. Glass is heavy and costs more to transport. From a consumer’s point of view, glass seems safer than plastic. Some studies report that plastic particles are released into the beverage or food products they are packaged in. I don’t want to eat or drink plastic and prefer glass or aluminum over plastic bottles. It’s a tough choice to make when deciding if glass or plastic is the lesser evil. While touring the Las Vegas recycling complex, I was told at best only 16% of plastic bottles are collected for recycling. I suggest you opt for glass or aluminum, even if you are recycling your plastics.

Paper, Not Plastic

Paper bags are better than plastic bags for the environment. Who hasn’t seen plastic grocery bags flying from tree limbs and barbwire fences? Yes, paper bags cost more to deliver and use more fuel to do so, but it’s a renewable resource. Better yet, use a shopping bag made from recycled plastics or a canvas bag. My Pike Place Market canvas bags are more than 20 years old and still holding up well. I keep extra canvas bags under the seat of my car so I always have reusable bags for shopping.

My 20 year old canvas grocery bags holding up well.

Support Those Who Produce Recycled Plastic Products

Supporting businesses that create useful consumer goods from recycled plastic is a great way to help the environment. I recently found out about West Paw in Montana. West Paw makes superior dog beds from recycled plastic bottles. They also make leashes, toys, and collars for dogs. Check out their toys made from Zogoflex, a strong chew-resistant product. West Paw has a program called Join the Loop where they encourage consumers to send in worn out Zogoflex toys for recycling. Read more about West Paw.

Samsonite has a line of eco-friendly luggage called Eco-Nu made from recycled plastic bottles. Light and durable, these bags are a smart solution for travelers who want to help the environment. I only recently found out about this line of luggage and will give it a try next time I’m in the market for a new suitcase.

U-Konserve is a company out of Sausalito California making some of their products from recycled plastics. I read this on their website, Americans discard more than 30 million tons of plastic a year, and only 8% gets recycled. The rest ends up in landfills, is incinerated, or becomes litter.

Photo by Pixabay/shirley810

Started by two moms that wanted to cut down on the waste created by packing lunches for their school-age children, this company is at the forefront of eco-friendly food-carrying products. Not only are their lunch totes and ice packs made from recycled plastic, but U-Konserve also makes a full line of eco-friendly food and beverage toting products. U-Konserve stresses the importance of using functional implements for packing lunches that can be reused hundreds of times. They even have a Lids for Life program where if the lid on their stainless steel container wears out, they will replace it for free.

A Better Grocery Store

In Maryland, a new kind of grocery store was born in 1987. Scott Nash is the founder and CEO of MOM’s (MOM’s Organic Market).  Scott has taken this small business started in his mother’s garage and turned it into a model for the future of grocery stores. Now spanning four Mid-Atlantic States and the District of Columbia, MOM’s stores accept a variety of hard to recycle products in their store. Customers can drop off used corks, shoes, foil-lined snack bags, eyewear, and other hard to recycle items. They also recycle Christmas lights during the holidays.

MOM’s Organic Grocery Store recycling station.

MOM’s quit selling still or flat bottled water in 2010 as part of their commitment to protect and restore the environment. They don’t use plastic grocery bags and encourage customers to bring re-useable bags when shopping. MOM’s gives customers a ten cent credit for each reusable bag used for toting groceries. One of the aspects of MOM’s commitment to the environment that impresses me the most is their donations of over $500,000. This money goes to environmental organizations that share in their global view of protecting our planet. If you don’t have a MOM’s store near you, pressure your favorite grocery store to adopt MOM’s eco-practices.

Mr. Trash Wheel to the Rescue

John Kellet got tired of seeing trash floating in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor on his way to work and took action. After 12 years of creating a workable prototype, Kellet’s Mr. Trash Wheel was put to work. This marvel of modern engineering scoops up tons of floating trash from Jones Falls, Harris Creek, and Masonville Cove. Powered by the force of flowing water supplemented with solar panels, Mr. Trash Wheel is saving the Bay.  Mr. Trash Wheel keeps thousands of plastic bottles, chip bags, plastic grocery bags, and more junk out of the Chesapeake Bay. What’s not to love about these machines!

Harris Creek trash wheel dubbed Professor Trash Wheel.

Volunteer events help sort some of the trash and send appropriate items to a recycling center. The rest is sent to landfills. And while I’d like to see all the plastics recycled, it’s better to be sent to a landfill than float out into the Bay.

What We Can Do

  1. Reduce, reuse, and recycle is still vital as ever.
  2. Consider buying beverages in aluminum instead of plastic containers.
  3. Contact your local municipality if you aren’t clear about proper recycling methods. It would be a shame to have your efforts end up in the local landfill unnecessarily.
  4. Be a part of the change by posting some of your favorite recycled products on the Mother Earth News Facebook page. By sharing eco-friendly products sources our health and the health of the planet will benefit greatly.

Kurt Jacobson writes about travel, food, wine, organic gardening, and most anything else from his varied professional life. His articles appear in Alaska Magazine, Fish Alaska Magazine, Metropolis Japan Magazine, Edible Delmarva Magazine, North West Travel and Life Magazine, and Mother Earth News. Kurt lives in the Baltimore, MD area with his wife, dog and cats. Kurt is a regular contributor to writing about Alaska, Colorado, New Zealand, Japan, and the Mid-Atlantic areas.

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