Submitted Date 04/23/2019

For a while, I worked in a laboratory where we studied sunflowers. We grew sunflowers, harvested sunflowers, and dried and measured all of the various parts of sunflowers. To effectively dry out loads of plant material, a good method is to put it in a paper bag and shove it into an oven. Once you no longer have use for thousands upon thousands of brown paper bags that used to hold desiccated plants, what do you do with them?

I thought the answer to that was, "recycle." After neatly folding up the used bags, I shoved them into the hallway paper recycling bins. That's until one of the undergrads told me I couldn't because there was plant residue inside them. Okay, so that didn't really stop me. I mean, paper bags are made out of plant pulp. That's essentially what paper is; tree pulp pressed into a flat sheet. So, the idea that a little powdered sunflower leaf would cause a problem is preposterous. "You can't recycle that thing made out of plant pulp that's going to be turned into more plant pulp because it's got a little plant pulp in it."

That's sort of how I feel about recycling glass. If they're going to melt down a beer bottle to recycle it, they'll need pretty high temperatures. Presumably, any little bit of beer left inside the bottle will vaporize. So, why should I rinse it out before I toss it in the green bin? While I'm all for saving the planet and I want to discourage plastics from ending up in the landfills, the rules of recycling are often confusing and seemingly irrational. I mean, the motto for the University of Georgia's Single Stream Recycling program is, "When in doubt, throw it out." What kind of slogan is that? The Environmental Protection Agency says that broken glass shouldn't go into the recycling bin or the trash. So what the hell do I do with it, start a shards collection?

I guess I'm what's called an "aspirational recycler." I kind of just toss things in the recycling bin and hope for the best. I know enough not to put plastic bags in with the cans and bottles; there's a separate bin at the grocery store for those. If I had need of them, I definitely know not to try and recycle a dirty diaper (People actually do that? Gross on so many levels). Aside from that though, I pretty much try and recycle whatever I can because I know if I throw it in the trash, it's definitely going into the environment. If I throw it in the recycling bin, at least there's a chance it'll end up becoming a new product. It's kind of like playing the waste lottery.

After reading a few articles - especially one by The New York Times called "6 Things You're Recycling Wrong," I've come to understand that a bit of food waste can really gum up the works and ruin a whole batch of recycled plastic, rendering it an unsellable product. China's no longer willing to accept our second-rate plastics either and I think they were our biggest source of income from recyclables. It seems that to recycle properly, one must consult the magic oracle of waste management and decipher complex sorting charts. Yet, organizations like The Recycling Partnership would have me believe that recycling is easy.

There are lists of what can and can't be recycled by local waste management companies, presumably posted on their websites. If you're using Republic Services (and there's a good chance you are, since they serve about 48 states), their site has a relatively easy reference chart. For toxic waste like oil, batteries, and tires, specialized facilities exist that handle them. But, getting in touch with these companies or programs will depend heavily on what's available locally. With a bit of effort, one can identify places to sort all kinds of waste.

What I really don't understand though, is that if a little bit of mozzarella can ruin an entire batch of recycled cardboard, why haven't recycling facilities come up with a way to circumvent the problem? What are the costs involved in running a recycling center? I presume there must be staff, a building, and a series of machines at the very least. I've read that plastic bags clog up the machines and get wound around the machinery. I've also read that, to unclog and detangle this stretchy plastic mess takes time and staff, cutting into the facility's bottom line. If that is indeed the case, wouldn't spending some of the staff's time ensuring that plastic bags are removed before they get processed be prudent? If a chunk of bleu cheese stuck in a salad dressing bottle is going to ruin a big batch of plastic recycling, then why doesn't machinery exist that pre-washes the bottles?

That leads me to wonder how far our recycling processes have come in their history. I had presumed that the great recycling trend came about during my lifetime, but I was way off base. While the modern environmental movement did get started around the same time I was learning to walk, recycling has been around in America since our colony days. In fact, according to Time's article "The History of Recycling In America Is More Complicated Than You May Think," they probably did a better job of recycling back then. For one thing, our society was more about making things last than about making things disposable. The article mentions how a shift came in the way Americans were taught to view recycling, "The companies behind the campaign successfully framed waste as a problem for consumers rather than one for the companies that manufactured the items being wasted…"

So maybe the answer to my recycling conundrum is to just reduce what I'm consuming. Then, I won't have to figure out which bin to chuck it in when I'm done with it.



The Recycling Partnership - Recycling 101



The New York Times - 6 Things You're Recycling Wrong (2018)



SWANA - Recycling Media Kit



Rubicon - What is Recycling Contamination and Why is it Important? (2017)



EPA - Frequent Questions on Recycling



I Want To Be Recycled - sorting game



Republic Services -



Mother Jones - 4 Big Recycling Myths Tossed Out (2015)



Time - The History of Recycling in America is More Complicated Than You May Think (2016)


Related Stories


Please login to post comments on this story

  • Kiersten Felch 1 year, 1 month ago

    Really stops and makes you think about what else we don't understand on a daily basis that we can actually change. Thanks for sharing.

    • Jen Parrilli 1 year, 1 month ago

      It's actually been a challenge to dig deeper and find out more about any progress that's been made in the recycling industry. Makes me a little suspicious, lol.

  • Tomas Chough 1 year, 1 month ago

    Th US definitely consumes a ton of waste. At the same time, there are better ways to recycle than other places. For example, I'm from Pittsburgh but now live in Argentina and people here in general consume less. But they aren't as advanced in recycling. It's definitely a tough issue, but I guess it all leads back to what we can do individually to make a difference. Thanks a lot for sharing!

    • Jen Parrilli 1 year, 1 month ago

      I think having a market for recycled goods is definitely an important part of the picture. Apparently, we'd been sending most of our recyclables to China and now they've changed their regulations. So, if we can't sell to China, where do these raw materials go?

  • Miranda Fotia 1 year, 1 month ago

    Such an important topic! Thanks for sharing!