Recycle Like Life Depends On It

Recycle Like Life Depends On It

Paper, plastic or neither?

By Kevin RR Williams

ECOLOGY To encourage shoppers to tote reusable containers, a growing number of California supermarkets now charge for bags. Many neighborhood sanitation collection companies have replaced the single-purpose trash bin with one each for recyclables (paper, plastic, alumninum), yard debris (plants), and refuse. By separating trash into various bins at home, it may seem that we are doing our part to save the world.

Certainly any efforts, however large or small, are appreciated and magnified exponentially by a vast number of participants. But garbage is still seeping through the cracks. To keep a tidy vehicle, some drivers toss trash out their windows before they get home. If products make their way into the house, they may be discarded in the wrong bin. Styrofoam, for example does not become recyclable by placing it in the bin for plastics. But even when we meticulously place every type of plastic in the blue bin, only a fraction of it is recycled.

Why is So Much Plastic in the Ocean?

Oceanic plastic waste is an epidemic because it outlives decomposing celulous debris, shattered glass, and rusting metals. Composed of various chemicals, plastic is too difficult to separate when it reaches the sanitation plant. Polypropylene (PP) must not only be separated by color but also kept distinct for polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polystyrene (PS) and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). They each have different melting points and molecular compositions. Thermoplastics can be re-melted and repurposed, whereas thermosets cannot.

Some plastics are food-grade and others aren’t. You probably wouldn’t want to drink your next beverage from a bottle that was once an antifreeze container. Plastics can also be contaminated with inks and remaining residue within the bottle. Thousands of different types of plastic are intermingled with cans, bottles and papers discarded in the curbside blue recycle bins.

Plastic Island
How our throwaway culture is turning paradise into a graveyard

During the few minutes a human separator has between truck dumps, the large, obvious, clearly identifiable items are recycled. The loose bottle caps, red straws extending from clear lids and wax paper left within cereal boxes may still end up in landfills and oceans. Three main ways plastics make it into the ocean are storm drains, wind, and illegal commercial dumping.

How to Recycle Better

As one household or company, what can you do to assist with the global recycling effort? For starters, share articles like this among your social media followers. Next, familiarize yourself regarding what is actually recyclable and avoid placing intermingling items like Styrofoam and scented fabric softener sheets with paper and plastic. Rinse containers that held foaming cleansers thoroughly before recycling.

Next, stop littering the streets. Going further, endeavor to properly dispose of at least one piece of trash you see lying in on a lawn or sidewalk each day you are out. There is a misconception about storm drains. Some people think there are fairies on the other end separating refuse and spraying it with air freshener. As the name implies, those drains are designed to return storm water back to the ocean. Trash left in the gutter follows the same path.

Thinking like a recycler allows you to organize your recylced trash better.

Visualize yourself in the place of the person responsible for separating recyclables. The most advanced systems are almost fully automated, with the UK leading the way in technology. If you haven’t visited your local recycling facility, assume an older system requiring at least some manual sorting. A truck dumps a room full of mixed waste. You have a few minutes to determine what can be recycled and what is regular trash. Grab that tied bag of shredded paper. There’s another filled with clear plastic bottles. Over there are bundled cardboard sheets. Thinking like a recycler allows you to organize your recylced trash better.

It is generally possible to obtain a flyer or weblink that displays a list of recyclable materials. Unless you phone ahead for a special pickup, truck drivers will not leave the cab so only items that fit in the cans will be picked up.

A Day in the Life of Your Garbage and Recyclables
Video about how garbage and recyclables move through the Sunnyvale Materials Recovery and Transfer Station (aka the SMaRT Station) in Sunnyvale, CA.

There was a time when serving drinking water to visitors required drawing it up from a well in a bucket and drinking it from a laddle. Today it is not uncommon to hand everyone water in their own individually sealed plastic bottle. Can you cut down on the use of bottled beverages?

Take a hint from the supermarkets charging 10 cents per bag. Bring your own; a portion of the proceeds for each reusable bag purchased funds recycling efforts while you prevent more bags from entering the ecosystem. Carry your own refillable mug to the coffee shop. Bring your own reusable food storage containers to restaurants instead of requesting a “doggie bag.” If you run a store or throw a party, provide recycled paper instead of plastic or Styrofoam carryout containers

Plastics have also taken over the fashion industry. Polyester clothing and plastic footwear breakdown into microfibers that harm sea creatures. Purchase natural fabrics like wool and cotton.

Environmental Statistics

Marine debris, including plastics, paper, wood, metal and other manufactured materials is found on beaches worldwide and at all depths of the ocean. There are more cigarrette butts in the gutter but they decompose faster than plastic. About 60-80% of all marine debris is composed of plastic (Rios et al. 2007). Ocean Conservancy's Trash Free Seas Alliance estimates that 8 million metric tons of plastic enters the ocean each year. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme, global plastic consumption went from 5.5 million tons in the 1950s to 110 million tons in 2009.

About 80% of marine debris originates from sources on land and the other 20%, about 636,000 tons per year, comes from ocean vessels (US Department of Commerce 1999; Ramirez-Llodra et al. 2011). Cruise ships represent only 1% of marine vessels, but produce about 25% of ship-sourced waste; on average, a single cruise passenger produces 3.5 kg (7.2 pounds) of waste per day (Butt 2007).

Reduce, reuse, recycle.

Many of the colorful plastics floating beneath the ocean surface resemble appetizing fish to soaring albatros and other sea creatures. The plastics and microfibers are ingested by fish that are part of the human food chain. So by improperly disposing of wastes, including plastics, people wind up eating their own garbage. Rather than remaining part of the problem, become part of the solution. Reduce, reuse, recycle.

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Tags: environment, litter bug, non-biodegradable, recycle