Greenpoint: Reduce and reuse first, then recycle with care

The problem is — nationwide — that contaminated product in the recycling bin is not recyclable

Moving the recyclables into tubs to carry out to the roadside last week, I thought of all the recent articles I’ve read about how we’re all recycling wrong.

This became news last year when China announced it would no longer accept our baled plastic for recycling because it was too contaminated. Part of the problem is people throwing garbage into recycling bins. Another is what The New York Times referred to as “wishful or aspirational recycling: people setting aside items for recycling because they believe or hope they are recyclable, even when they aren’t.”

The Times published a list of the six things people do wrong in the recycling bin, from putting in greasy pizza boxes and takeout containers to tossing in dirty disposable diapers. That’s on the garbage end. On the aspirational side, people put in Styrofoam packaging, which isn’t recyclable, and paper coffee cups, not realizing that most are coated with a layer of plastic that renders them nonrecyclable.

An Oregon paper published a similar article, talking about how Oregonians pride themselves on their historical leadership in recycling and the amount they’ve removed from the waste stream, but are fooling themselves with wishful recycling. The Texarkana Gazette published an article last week saying so many people were putting nonrecyclables in their recycling bins that curbside recycling could be discontinued.

The problem is — nationwide — that contaminated product in the recycling bin is not recyclable. That includes food residue on containers and recyclables comingled with nonrecyclables.

Recycling is more than separating trash. It’s having a market that will take recyclables and process them into new materials. And if the markets won’t take what we put into recycling bins, it all ends up in landfills or incinerators.

China, the major market worldwide, started enforcing its existing rule that recyclables should contain no more than 0.5 percent contaminants. Even proud Portland, Oregon, ends up with up to 20 times more contamination than that, according to Willamette Week, a Portland weekly.

Municipalities run facilities to separate our single-source recycling stream into marketable commodities, and apparently spend more and more time sorting out garbage. The bulk of it is plastics, and some plastics — clamshells, packing peanuts, coated paper produces — are not recyclable. Neither are yogurt-streaked yogurt containers.

And if we lose our markets, even what is recyclable now will all be garbage, all headed for the landfill.

So what can we do?

First off, reduce the amount of plastic you take in from the start by choosing goods with the least amount of packaging, buying in bulk whenever possible and avoiding single-use items. It’s not only less wasteful to buy a gallon jug of something than eight individual bottles, it’s cheaper too. And you have only one bottle to recycle.

It takes more thought up front, but it’s worth the effort. It’s cheaper to buy seeds than flower or vegetable plants, for instance, and the packaging is one paper envelope rather than a whole mess of plastic pots that are often so flimsy it’s hard to reuse them.

But step two is to reuse whatever you can. Store your leftovers in the jar your peanut butter came in rather than buying a plastic storage container and tossing the peanut butter jar — even if you are tossing it in the recycling bin.

And if you are tossing the peanut butter jar in the recycling, make sure you wash it first. Clean recyclables are actually marketable and nothing gets recycled without markets.

Greenpoint appears every other Sunday. Look for it next on June 24.  Reach Margaret Hartley at [email protected] or @Hartley_Maggie on Twitter. Opinions expressed in Greenpoint are hers and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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