Myths and realities of recycling

Bea Johnson author of Zero Waste Home
Bea Johnson from and book Zero Waste Home

MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, MD., April 12, 2015 – Recycling is an issue that separates people with different philosophies. Personal observations in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, DC, is that most people recycle. In Montgomery County, one can tell the days for recycling by observing the blue bins at the curb of most suburban homes. A casual observation indicates that more than 80% of all homes recycle some material.

Many find it difficult to figure out why recycling is not 100%. One can speculate that some just don’t want to take the time to separate the recyclables from the trash. In Montgomery County, trash will not be picked up if it is obvious that the bins and bags contain mostly recyclables. Sanitation workers regularly leave a highly obvious sticker on them advising to recycle.

Others who don’t recycle may think it is a matter of personal freedom. They resent that the government is telling them what to do with what they consider to be trash. Others may even think that any program that has the backing of liberals and tree huggers has to be a Communist plot.

The fact is that recycling has many beneficial effects. For those who only see the bottom line, having to purchase and transport the trash and operate a sanitary landfill should be one of them. The logic is that with less trash, the expense of landfilling should be reduced and therefore our taxes should be lower.

It is not the intention of the author to give a sermon on recycling and its benefits, so here it is short and sweet. Recycling reduces the use of limited resources and energy and decreases the production of toxic substances that are by-products of mining and processing.

Myths and reality of recycling

In a January episode of Inside Man, Morgan Spurlock presented “United States of Trash”, an in-depth segment on waste and recycling. In it he describes the types of materials that are most likely recycled. The list is nothing new to those who have analyzed this issue for some time.

The bad news is that plastics are the least recycled. Only 12% of plastics are recycled in the US according to EPA (2012). This statist is evident when one observes the amount of plastic containers that are discarded in and outside trash bins in our parks, highways and waterways.What is surprising is that plastic bags are recycled at a greater rate, but only slightly more. Since plastics are a product of the petrochemical industry, we are disposing a product that is more limited than other materials that are in fact recycled at a greater rate. The fact that we are seeing more and more plastics used to package more and more products is alarming. The trend for the last several decades is that products that were packaged in glass and metal containers are more and more provided in plastic.

Glass containers, especially beer bottles are recycled at a 34.1% according to a group representing the glass container industry (2012). The components to make glass are plentiful, as it is mostly sand. Glass containers are also reused for all kinds of purposes including for making marketable items like cut items and bottle slumps. Recycled glass doesn’t lose any of its properties and can be recycled over and over.

By far the most recycled material is metal. Aluminum can be recycled over and over with a savings of 75% of water and 95% of energy. 55% of waste aluminum containers are recycled. The process of extracting aluminum from its ore, bauxite, is very energy intensive as it requires electrolysis and it uses molten cryolite which is a compound containing fluoride, a very strong halogen that can be very polluting if not retained/treated. Therefore, recycling saves large amounts of electricity and water and prevents environmental degradation.

The most recycled metal is steel. Most of the steel is reused over and over in our appliances, cars, building, bridges and highways. The recycling is mostly done at industrial levels as consumer products are less and less packaged in steel (tin cans) containers.

Paper is the most recycled consumer product. According to EPA, 65% of paper was recycled in 2012. Paper recycling may involve the use of persistent organic compounds and as a result it has received bad press in the past (NPI). Of all paper, newspapers are the most recycled. Recycling saves trees, and while today’s controlled forest are sufficient for almost any demand, the cutting and transportation of the logs does pollute water and air.

In “United States of Trash,” Spurlock interviews a family that has taken recycling to its extreme. This family only produces a mason jar of trash… per year! (Bea Johnson, Zero Waste Home) In the segment the lady of the house is seen purchasing pork chops at a grocery store and handing the butcher a glass container to put the meat in.

Is this one of these problems that doesn’t have a solution? Definitely not.

One simple decision will make a big difference. Decrease the amount of food packaged in plastic that you buy. You can also reuse many of the plastic containers. Containers with rigid plastic sides can be used to store screws, knots, toys, nails, collectibles, food, etc. The sky is the limit. A friend nails the lids of the containers to a board above his work bench, fills the containers with different size screws and nails and then screws the containers back to the lids. He uses transparent varying size containers and the effect is quite attractive and practical. Cutting a gallon container of milk along its largest axis will give you two containers to plant cuttings. No need to buy expensive plant watering jugs, just re-use a plastic beverage container.

The author uses unusual (glass) bottles of wine to create “slumps” that serve as spoon rests, snack trays, jewelry holders, etc. Glass bottles can also be cut and drilled to make glasses, lamps, planters, lanterns and other attractive creations.

Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is an avid re-user and recycler. He is in Twitter (@chibcharus), Google+, LinkedIn and Facebook (Mario Salazar).

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  • purrna2go

    Diy and crafters re-use/repurpose plastics. Returning plastic bags to the grocery store is planning. I will try taking a reusable containers to the grocery store for produce, meat, etc. Most of the country does not have complete recycling programs as in MoCo. I observe that life is difficult for some people and sorting is never gonna happen with these families. It makes me sad.

    • 21st Century Pacifist

      It is too bad that this type of progressive mentality is not the norm in many places. I have been to places where when one asks for the recycling bins, only gets a blank stare.

      • purrna2go

        Hi. I re-posted your article’s link on the County’s Recycling facebook page (yes, they have one for each dept.) where it will be appreciated.

        • 21st Century Pacifist

          Thank you purma2go.