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Reducing the Reuse of the Recycle Sign

By Hunter Marion.

In 2021, California passed a law restricting the use of the classic recycling symbol upon products that are not truly recyclable. Last May, this law, and substantial complaints over the years, triggered an official comment by the EPA against the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). This comment encouraged the FTC to update its Green Guides to regulate the symbol’s use more stringently amongst plastics companies.

At the heart of this issue, the EPA, several concerned environmental groups like Greenpeace and Beyond Plastics, and even the Biden Administration have found that the use of this symbol perpetuates plastic pollution and misleads consumers. This misleading stems from the linked usage of the recyclable symbol with “resin identification codes” (RIDs) on single-use plastics.

Simplified, RIDs range from 1 to 7, with 1-2 being plastics that are generally able to be successfully recycled, while plastics labelled 3-7 are instead trashed in landfills or incinerated. However, the general recycling populace usually knows nothing about these numbers, identifies the recycling symbol, and throws all their plastic into the same bin. Doing this creates a dramatic chokepoint for waste collection companies who must separate and sort the mixed plastics at their materials recovery facilities (MRFs). Consistently backed up and under pressure, a sizable portion of these plastics are not properly separated and are often dumped or burned.

While banning the recycling symbol for non-recyclable products would help cut down rampant waste and curtail decades of greenwashing, environmental advocates still push for the total reduction in plastics use by consumers entirely. Both Greenpeace and Beyond Plastics reported that in 2021 only 5-6 percent of the total plastic produced by the U.S. was effectively recycled. Over 400 million tons of plastic are produced every year, 42 million tons in the U.S. alone.

Greenpeace’s John Hocevar says that we “have to stop thinking of all this throwaway plastic as recyclable and treat it for what it is: a very problematic type of waste.” This should be the most important takeaway from this issue. Plastic, no matter how recyclable, is not a viable product that should be used on a mass scale. It should not be ubiquitous to almost every aspect of our lives. Instead, like Hocevar and Judith Enck from Beyond Plastics suggest, we should strive to distance ourselves from purchasing or using plastics in our everyday lives. Instead of getting fixated on the recycling portion, we should focus on the widescale reduction and, if possible, safe reuse of plastics rather than making more.


America Recycles Day 2019

November 15 is America Recycles Day. The day recognizes national support and education for the importance of recycling for the country’s economic and environmental health. The America Recycles Day not only brings awareness to recycling plastics, but encourages participants to review other lifestyle changes that would limit the production and circulation of plastic. Such changes include avoiding the purchase of plastic products or finding way to reuse products before disposal.
America Recycles Day
Take the Pledge

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Where Do Plastics Go?

When a plastic bottle gets recycled by an environmentally-conscious consumer, where does it go? Many people assume it gets trucked off somewhere nearby and ultimately gets reborn as a brand new product further down the line. The reality, however, is that a significant portion of America’s waste used to get sent to China to be processed and potentially turned into something useful.
Unfortunately, since January 1 of 2018, China has placed bans and restrictions on many types of waste the United States used to export, leaving huge amounts of potentially reusable materials with nowhere to utilize them. By 2030, 111 million metric tons of plastic waste that otherwise would have been processed in China now has nowhere to be handled.[fusion_builder_container hundred_percent=”yes” overflow=”visible”][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type=”1_1″ background_position=”left top” background_color=”” border_size=”” border_color=”” border_style=”solid” spacing=”yes” background_image=”” background_repeat=”no-repeat” padding=”” margin_top=”0px” margin_bottom=”0px” class=”” id=”” animation_type=”” animation_speed=”0.3″ animation_direction=”left” hide_on_mobile=”no” center_content=”no” min_height=”none”][1] The domestic factories that process these kinds of materials into usable goods are too few, too small, and too swamped to take on this extra capacity.
Under an administration that touts its “America First” values as paramount, it seems overwhelmingly hypocritical to be sending huge portions of our recycling, and the jobs and income associated with processing and repurposing it, away to other countries. The United States isn’t only missing out on a large economic opportunity by neglecting to re-establish a recycling industry on American soil. Unsurprisingly, the practice of shipping off our waste for someone else to deal with has had negative consequences for the countries burdened with it.
Currently, portions of what used to be sent to China now go to countries like Vietnam and Thailand without adequate facilities to process recyclable materials. Without the proper infrastructure it is common in some places to simply burn these pallets of plastics, metals, and e-waste releasing huge quantities of air pollution.[2] Under America’s current recycling system, we are essentially exporting toxic gases that damage the health and beauty of developing nations across the Pacific.
While public awareness of what can and can’t be recycled and government initiative to re-establish an American recycling industry are important, they do nothing to address the fact that Americans on average generate nearly 5 pounds of waste every day.[3] Ultimately, the best thing to do is consume less plastics and other single-use materials altogether. If you want to reduce the amount of waste you generate, consider using reusable water bottles and portable coffee mugs, bringing your own cutlery to work on days you eat out, and demanding that companies or businesses where you spend your money use less single-use packaging.

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The Environmental Injustice of Electronic Waste

By Michelle Atkin

An increasing number of electronic devices continue to escalate the number that are disposed of each year – in 2012 the United States produced 3.4 million tons of electronic waste! Discarded phones, tablets, computers, televisions and even washers, dryers and refrigerators are an enormous problem and only 1 million tons are recycled. Anything disposed of with an electrical component is considered e-waste and the United Nations estimates that 20-50 million tons are produced around the world each year.

The U.S. disposes of 25 million TVs, 47.5 million computers and 100 million cell phones each year. If we recycled this quantity of cell phones alone, 3500 pounds of copper, 77,200 pounds of silver, 7500 pounds of gold and 3300 pounds of palladium could be salvaged.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s reports show an increase in recycling from 30.6% in 2012 to 40.4% in 2013, potentially in response to their Sustainable Materials Management Electronics Challenge.

In order to safely process e-waste, it costs a developed nation approximately $2500 per ton; however, some developing countries accept imports for as little as $3 per ton. Unfortunately, they do not have the means to properly handle these materials, yet the United States, Europe, Japan, South Korea and Australia continue to ship e-waste to vulnerable countries.

Public health and environmental concerns stem from open-air burning and acid baths used to recover valuable components from electronic equipment. The most greatly impacted population is children (as young as five to 18), sent by their parents to make a couple of dollars by burning the plastic coatings off copper wires for example, often with their bare hands.

The toxic fumes and dust inhaled during hazardous retrieval and massive plastic scrap yard fires (to reduce volume) contain lead, phthalates and chlorinated dioxins. The poor air quality has a detrimental effect on nearby food markets and deteriorates the water quality of the area rivers, lagoons and even the ocean.

Jim Puckett reminds us, “Wherever we live, we must realize that when we sweep things out of our lives and throw them away… they don’t ever disappear, as we might like to believe. We must know that ‘away’ is in fact a place… likely to be somewhere where people are impoverished, disenfranchised, powerless and too desperate to be able to resist the poison for the realities of their poverty. ‘Away’ is likely to be a place where people and environments will suffer for our carelessness, our ignorance or indifference.” As a founder of the Basal Action Network non-profit, they focus on confronting the global environmental injustice and economic inefficiency of toxic trade and its devastating impacts.

To learn more about the problem of e-waste, visit EPA’s web page here. Or to learn what you can do to help, visit Electronics Take Back Coalition.

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The Next Wave of Recycling: Food Waste

Recycling glass, plastics, metals and paper has become a part of every day life for most Americans. Recycling rates (including reuse, remanufacture, composting) have reached 32% nationwide, which is more than double what it was 10 years ago. Many municipalities have successfully added curbside collection of yard waste and are now posed to take the next step in this evolution – the collection of food waste scraps for composting.

Americans generated 33 million tons of food waste in 2010 of which only 3% was recycled. The remainder went to landfills or was burned. It’s the next major component of the waste stream to take on in the efforts to reach zero waste. Currently about 170 communities in 18 states offer curbside collection of residential food waste which represents a 50% increase since 2009. In 2005, there were only 20 food waste collection programs in the US. Most of the existing programs are on the west coast with California offering 53 programs and Washington offering 52. California pioneered organic recycling when it passed a law in 1989 to divert half its waste from landfills by 2000. The city of San Francisco took this mission even further when it set a goal of diverting 75% of its trash by 2010 and now has set a goal of achieving zero waste by 2020. One strategy employed by the city has been to charge residents and businesses based on how much trash they generate (known as pay as you go). By doing this, individuals and businesses have an incentive to find ways to reduce the amount of trash they generate, which in turn, has helped to boost recycling rates.

The primary limiting factor to starting a food scrap collection program has been and remains a place to take the waste.  There are not enough facilities that can process food waste into compost.  The city of Portland, Oregon which began weekly collection of food waste and yard waste in October of 2011 recently decided to send its commercial food waste to a facility in Washington more than 200 miles away. The city had no choice as the county that had been accepting this waste voted to no longer allow the facility to accept commercial food scraps because of numerous complaints about odors from nearby residents.

Changes are coming however as the big guys like Waste Management, the largest waste hauler and disposal company in the country gear up to get into the composting business.  In addition, companies have incorporated simple steps to make it easy for people to participate. Many companies provide buckets lined with a plastic bag for people to place their food scraps and organic waste. The bucket is placed at the curb along with a trash barrel and a recycling bin. Many communities are starting slowly with pilot programs, but others are already reaping the benefits. In the first year of its food waste collection program, for example, the city of Portland, Oregon reduced the amount of residential waste it generated from 94,100 tons to 58,300 tons, a 38 percent drop. Keep your eyes out for a food waste collection program coming to your community.  It’s only a matter of time.

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Making Sense of Zero Waste

When most people think of zero waste, they think of a near impossible and impractical goal.

They think that zero waste means not generating any waste or that all the waste that is generated has to be recovered, reused or recycled. Zero waste is much more than these narrow views envision. A new report by the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, On the Road to Zero Waste: Successes and  Lessons from Around the World, provides a realistic view of what zero waste is by providing examples of how it is being applied and offers great hope of what it can be.

The report makes clear that zero waste is both a goal and a plan of action. The goal is to ensure resource recovery and protect scarce natural resources by ending waste disposal practices that use incinerators, dumps and landfills. The plan incorporates waste reduction, composting, recycling and reuse, changes in consumption habits and industrial redesign. The report also points out that zero waste is a “revolution” between waste and people. “It is a new way of thinking that aims to safeguard the health, and improve the lives of everyone who produces, handles, works with, or is affected by waste – in other words all of us.”

Nine success stories from across the globe are profiled in the report. Each of the communities profiled used different zero waste practices that were unique to its culture, economy and political realities, yet each led successfully to the same goal. Each shared several key ingredients – intensive prevention and source separation policies and flexible and decentralized, low-tech waste treatment systems. Each was more cost-effective and generated more employment than systems built around big incinerators and landfills.

The introduction to the report describes a common philosophy behind a comprehensive zero waste plan driven by four core strategies: 1) Setting a new direction away from waste disposal; 2) Supporting comprehensive reuse, recycling and organics treatment programs; 3) Engaging Communities; and 4) Designing for the future.

The new direction moves society away from waste disposal by setting goals and target dates to reduce waste going to landfills, abolishing waste incineration, establishing or raising landfill fees, shifting subsidies away from waste disposal and into discard recovery, and banning disposable products, among other interventions.

Zero waste systems separate waste at its source to ensure high recovery quality and efficiency.  Separate organics collection is critical to ensure a stream of clean, high quality material which in turn enables the creation of useful products (compost and biogas) from the largest fraction of municipal waste. It also improves the recycling rates because materials remain free of contamination.

A critical element of zero waste is involving the local community in determining the direction of the waste management program. The public needs to be involved in the very design of the plan for it to succeed. Residents must actively participate by consuming sustainably, minimizing waste, separating discards, and composting at home.

Once zero waste practices are in place, it becomes easier to identify materials or products that cannot be reused, composted or recycled. This creates opportunities to address industrial design mistakes or inefficiencies so that companies will produce cleaner and more sustainable products. If it cannot be reused, composted or recycled, it should not be produced in the first place.

Zero waste strategies can help societies produce and consume goods while respecting ecological limits and the rights of communities to self determination. It can also help ensure that all discarded materials are safely and sustainably returned to nature or manufacturing.

For a copy of the report, see <>.