For decades, people have been stressing the importance of recycling. In the beginning, it was a great alternative to placing items like glass, aluminum, and plastic in the trash. But things were also a lot different 20 or even 10 years ago. As our demand for convenience items grew, so did the amount of plastic trash we generated. Bottled water, pre-packaged food, and other single-use items now line store shelves and fill our cupboards at home. We buy items with convenience in mind instead of sustainability, and it’s finally caught up with us.
For many, the satisfaction of tossing something into a recycling bin helps justify the purchase of disposable products. Advertisements reinforce these thoughts by showing us how our tossed plastic bottles are turned into new products, so we don’t feel as bad about picking up that pack of bottled water at the grocery store or buying produce and other products packaged in plastic and disposable containers. As long as the packaging can be recycled, all is good, right? Well, not exactly.
What Really Happens to All Our Recycling
The promotion of recycling programs, along with increased recycling awareness, have helped keep some of this toxic trash out of landfills. But what many probably don’t know is that a large portion of recycling is sent overseas, and it’s now gotten to the point where we are producing and disposing of so much recyclable trash that the recycling programs can’t keep up.
The U.S. exports approximately one-third of its recycling. In 2016, we exported a staggering 16 million tons of trash to China, including plastic, textiles, paper, and recyclable solid waste. Europe and Ireland have been doing the same thing, but China has said “no more” and stopped accepting our trash last January. Their decision was based on a combination of economics and the amount of contaminated or non-recyclable items that are usually mixed in with recyclables, some of them toxic.
Now recycling companies are trying to figure out what to do with all the recyclables that are piling up, and some may even have to resort to sending millions of pounds of trash to landfills simply because there’s too much. Recycling has helped keep a lot of plastic, glass, aluminum, and paper out of landfills and our oceans, but it’s not a solution to our trash problem.
Why Recycling Won’t Solve Our Trash Problem
Our “it’s okay because it can be recycled” mentality has gotten us into trouble. Another issue is “wish cycling,” which is when someone tosses questionable items into a bin in hopes they can be recycled. These items include dirty diapers, soiled food containers, coffee cups, plastic cutlery, and other items that aren’t accepted by recycling facilities. Trash collection and recycling facilities are sometimes able to sort through recycled materials to pull these items out, but that’s not always the case. It’s important for people to understand their local recycling guidelines and to remember that tossing something into a recycling bin doesn’t mean it can or will be recycled.
Another issue is that only 53 percent of Americans have access to recycling services that are provided and readily available in their home. Others may have to request recycling services or drive their recycling to a drop-off center, which isn’t always a feasible option for those who don’t own a vehicle. Recycling advocates have worked to help make recycling more accessible to everyone, but until that happens, businesses and individuals need to focus on ways to reduce waste.
Consumers Need to Focus on Reducing and Reusing
Reduce … Reuse … Recycle. The order has always been the same, but for some reason, we began to focus more on the recycling part than on reducing our waste and reusing items we already have. According to the EPA, the U.S. generated approximately 262.4 million tons of municipal waste in 2015, and of that amount, 137.7 million tons ended up in landfills. A staggering 91 percent of the plastic we produce isn’t recycled, and of the nearly one million plastic water bottles produced every minute, only about half will be recycled.
We’re producing a concerning amount of trash, and it’s having a devastating impact on the environment. The trash in landfills is polluting our land, oceans, and waterways. Most of the plastic comes in the form of disposable convenience items like plastic shopping bags, water bottles, coffee pods, and disposable straws and utensils. And since plastic takes around 400 years to degrade, it isn’t going to go away anytime soon. Plastic trash also leaches poisons into the environment and causes devastating harm to fish, birds, and marine animals who ingest plastic pieces or become entangled in plastic bags, plastic sheeting, and other trash.
Perhaps the most eye-opening result of our trash problem is The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which contains over 8 million metric tons of trash, including fishing nets, plastic bags, and microplastics — even computer monitors and LEGOs. Our trash doesn’t go away once we toss it in a bin, and now that we have fewer places to send our millions of tons of recycling, we need to seriously rethink our consumption habits.
Be a Conscious Consumer and Say NO to Plastic
Take the pledge to reduce waste and #CrushPlastic by choosing reusable over disposable. Be a conscious shopper by skipping packaged items whenever possible and refusing plastics at restaurants and in the workplace. We know it’s hard to avoid all plastic and single-use packaging, but there are simple steps we can take to reduce waste and keep our planet clean.
- Invest in a sturdy reusable water bottle for beverages and a travel mug for hot beverages.
- Purchase a few woven or canvas reusable bags to use on shopping trips.
- Bring reusable mesh or cotton bags to the store for produce and bulk dry goods.
- Use glass or stainless-steel lunch containers instead of buying disposable plastic containers.
- Keep a set of reusable silverware stashed in your desk drawer at work.
- Think before you buy and avoid single-use plastic whenever possible.
There are many inspiring people who are living a waste-free life and proving it can be done! To learn more about them and how you can follow in their footsteps, click here.