Recycling Our Problems
by Veronica Farren
Wouldn't it make more sense to wash out that yogurt tub and use it to bring tomorrow's lunch into work than to have it shipped hundreds of miles away, only to be annihilated with chemicals, crushed to pieces, and partially used in the re-creation of another yogurt tub?
Reusing is one of the most sustainable ways to make the most out of every object, to take only what you need, and to show the planet that you do not take it for granted. Recycling, on the other hand, is a practice that comes with much more baggage than people tend to think. Many earth-lovers proudly toss all of their plastics into one designated recycling bin, falling under the widely shared, innocent impression that these salvaged items will be brought to a happy recycling plant and turned into new eco-friendly containers. Unfortunately, the world of recycling is as complex and corrupt as that of any other corporate order, and the process is not as pertinent a solution to saving the environment as it is often made out to be.
While recycling does cut monetary expenses and material use, the fuel needed to power the long journey that our trash is taken on is more costly in both senses than we realize. Recycled items are brought to a sorting area where paid workers separate the usable waste from the garbage as well as sort the different types of recyclables. Then, heavy loads are transported via truck to recycling plants or, in many cases, to ships that sail to facilities across seas and back, all adding up to a tremendous amount of gas mileage. More influentially, recycling plants emit toxic chemicals into the atmosphere in a way not much less harmful than that of a production plant. Of course, more greenhouse gases are released when entirely new plastics are produced. However, it seems a bit counterintuitive to attempt to save the earth in a way that is so similar to the cause of its very downfall.
Aluminum is relatively easy to transform into new material. The problem with plastics lies in the wide variety of compounds that can make up these containers. Generally speaking, plastics can only be recycled with others of their kind, and because the resins of some of these substances are mixed with additives during production, even plastics with the same recycling number can often be incompatible. Chinese takeout boxes, yogurt cups, hummus tubs, hard toy packaging, and milk jugs are among the most difficult plastics to recycle, often being thrown out by sorters and brought to landfills despite the intent of the home recycler. It is nearly impossible to rid a load of recyclable objects completely of oddballs that do not share the chemical composition of the others. These weak links that have been overlooked continue on to form unstable areas in newly created material, giving recycled plastic a poor reputation that prevents many manufacturers from using it in their products. Even world-minded business leaders are limited to the amount of recycled plastic they can use in their product because of the significant decline in quality and functionality as a result of this recycling procedure.
As a community, we need not recycle more, but think more about our options. The choice between paper and plastic is no ultimatum. As we have learned from recent supermarket campaigns, bringing your own bag is a great way to make a difference. Likewise, trash and recycling are not polar opposites. In fact, I consider the two options to be rather close in relation, under the family name of disposal. Items that were created with materials that initially had the capability to form long-lasting items are being cast away after just a few uses, either piled up on a mountain of trash, burned, or made into less productive versions of the same thing.
Generally, if something can be casually thrown away, the disposer had no need for it in the first place. It is virtuous to have only as many things as you can care about. Unfortunately, excessive packaging so often holds items that we genuinely need, such as food and medicine. No matter how much each family cuts back on water bottles, packaged produce, grocery bags, and other unnecessary purchases, a household bin full of used disposable packaging will still likely be a prevalent hassle come the end of the week, and with new information on the disappointing ineffectuality of recycling, the guilt-loaded question of what to do with this waste arises.
Realistically, the excess amount of paper, plastic, cardboard, aluminum, and other materials in the world today is not as much of a consumer problem as it is a manufacturer problem. This burden has largely been set by the decisions of large corporations to continue pumping out one-time-use products rather than offering sustainable alternatives, such as local glass bottle delivery and refill services.
Advocates argue that the benefits of recycling outweigh the burdens, noting that although greenhouse gases are emitted into the atmosphere and excessive energy and funds are used, recycling allows us to create more disposable items for a lesser cost, with fewer materials, and with less waste. Yet the lack of resources and the pollution of the atmosphere are two entirely separate problems; to justify one in sacrifice of preventing the other is not a step forward in cleaning up the earth, but a rather irresponsible way of pushing the food around the plate. Instead of finding an alternative method for creating more disposable items, it would be wise to find a solution to outdate disposables. We have no idea what long-term effects greenhouse gases will have on our future, but I predict it will be more influential than the one-time convenience of water in a screw-top bottle.
Veronica Farren is an environmentalist writer from Northern Massachusetts whose proposals have been a key influence in the eco-friendly transition of many businesses across New England. To contact Veronica, visit www.veronicafarren.com.