What can we do to make it better?
There is a lot of blame to go around in the failure of recycling: lack of oversight of the industry, relying on a foreign country to dispose of our waste, our desire for more and more stuff and pure laziness.
This dire situation is literally growing by the day as more and more recyclable waste ends up in landfills as communities like Old Trail in Crozet abandon recycling altogether. The United Nations now sees plastic pollution as second only to global warming in environmental concerns that threaten human existence.
While the answers to stymieing global warming seems out of reach for most people, activists say there are many things we can do on an individual level to alleviate our addiction to plastic and slow the flow of them to landfills.
The mantra goes “Reduce. Reuse. Repair. Recycle.” In that order.
What does this look like in the life of the average person?
Instead of using plastic grocery bags, take reusable bags to the grocery store. Don’t use plastic bags to hold your produce. Purchase items in glass, have the butcher wrap your meat in paper.
At lunch, politely hand your straws back to your server, take your own insulated mug to your favorite coffee shop. After eating, store your leftovers in reusable glass containers. Studies have shown that on average people will pay more for plastic wrap than glass containers.
In most communities, tap water is better for you in every way than bottled water. Know what’s in your water. Bottled water contains microplastics and nano plastics that may have human health consequences.
Buy in bulk and use paper (or recycle your plastic containers — just write the tare weight on the outside and remind your cashier.)
Buy more cookbooks and less prepared food. Homemade tastes better and is better for you nutritionally anyway. (NEVER buy food advertised as being able to cook safely in plastic. All plastics will leach chemicals at high temperatures.)
Activists say that just doing these few simple things to reduce our consumption of plastic could be enough to make a serious dent in the growing global pile of plastic waste. Purchasing has power, and if more consumers opt for glass (which is 100% recyclable and in the U.S. more than 80% is recycled), the industry will start to move accordingly.
Plastic is an amazing invention for the general durability alone which makes them fantastic for reusing. People are pretty inventive. Look around the internet for five minutes and you will encounter hundreds of unique uses for plastic waste. Purchase plastic containers of food with the intention of using the container once you’ve eaten or used everything inside.
Because of the pliability of plastic and the ability to melt under heat, it’s pretty easy to repair. A soldering gun can make quick work of repairing a cracked laundry basket or trash can. It might not be pretty, but you won’t have to shuck out more money for another plastic item, and you won’t be contributing to the landfill.
While reducing, reusing and repairing plastics will save you money, your health and the environment, recycling plastics is now even more important. Keep in mind the kind of plastic you are buying (check the resin codes — No. 7 plastic isn’t actually recyclable and can be made up of unregulated chemicals) and properly clean the containers out before putting them in your recycling bin.
Given that there is virtually no oversight and transparency with our recyclables, or garbage for that matter, citizens can put pressure on local and state governments to show how and where items are being recycled and how much of everything is ending up in the landfill.
The federal government can incentivize companies to open plastic recycling centers in the U.S. More importantly, it could focus on what is deemed the circular economy. That means helping companies to consider at the beginning what will happen to their packaging and materials at the end.
Globally, there is a movement by scientists to develop a single type of plastic for every use that is relatively safe but that is also easily recycled. Creating and endless loop and shrinking the overall manufacturing.
The mountain of recyclables is growing every second of every day, and it’s clear from scientific studies that the results are ending up in the water we drink and the food we eat.
But around the county and the world, the effort to do something about that mountain continues.
For current best practices on recycling many items locally, check out our local recycling guide.
Locally, there is also an environmental nonprofit, GreenBlue, that prints recycling guides on many products nationwide.