Most people in the United States are taught that they should recycle, and most (94%) say they support recycling, so why are only 34.7% of Americans actually recycling? According to a 2019 survey by the waste management company Covanta, this inaction can be attributed to a lack of understanding on how to recycle, rather than a lack of care. Unfortunately, despite their good intentions, even those who do actively recycle are not always doing so correctly. This leads to recyclables becoming contaminated and unusable.
What is recycling contamination?
Contamination occurs when product residue remains on recyclables, when non-recyclables are mixed with recyclables, and when different types of recyclable materials are mixed. If a batch of recycling has too high of a contamination percentage, the entire batch is discarded as waste. The most effective way to prevent this waste is to follow the guidelines established by each recycling company- Never assume that the procedures for each type of recycling will be the same!
How can contamination be prevented?
A great first step to avoiding contamination in recycling is making sure the intended items align with current guidelines. For plastics and some other non-standard materials, start by searching for a recycling number or recycling instructions- If you cannot find a recycling number or instructions, chances are that the item in question is not recyclable. Exceptions may include cardboard, paper, aluminum, tin, or steel cans, which are typically recyclable. After confirming an item is recyclable, the next step is to thoroughly rinse out any food, cleaning, or cosmetic product residue from the container. If recycling cardboard or paper, be sure to look out for any oil or food stains, as those count as contaminates.
Another great way to avoid contamination is by using sorted recycling bins instead of single-stream recycling bins. Single-stream recycling is a system in which all types of recyclables can be placed in the same bin; however, this type of recycling often leads to cross contamination causing huge waste. While convenient, oftentimes neither humans nor machines can adequately and quickly sort single-stream recyclables resulting in high levels of contamination. Remember, contaminated recyclables end up in a landfill: exactly what we are trying to avoid by recycling! Because of these reasons, separating recyclables into like bins is the safest way to go.
A Note from the Author
The next time you unpack a cardboard box or empty a can of soup, remember the simple step I have laid out for you. I hope you feel empowered by the knowledge that you can make the correct decisions regarding product recyclability and preparation. Thank you for doing your part to keep waste out of landfills!
To find more information on specific types of recycling, follow these resources:
Living sustainably on an individual basis may seem as simple as drinking from a refillable water container, refusing plastic grocery bags, and recycling. However, many people miss out on a major and necessary area of sustainability, which is what they wear.
According to the EPA, textiles, such as clothing, shoes, bags, bedding and more, accounted for 14.4 million tons of total municipal solid waste in 2017, which equates to around 70 lbs per person in the US. These numbers do not need to be so high, but the reality of the matter is that consumerism and fast-fashion are so common that they have been conditioned into the minds of millions.
Thankfully, there are several approaches that can be taken to help decrease the amount of needless textile waste that ends up being added to landfills or incinerated.
Buying less is the most impactful and obvious thing that can be done to decrease textile waste. This can be accomplished by repairing old clothing vs throwing it away, avoiding purchases based on trends, and putting together custom capsule wardrobes. A capsule wardrobe is centered around a few staple, versatile articles of clothing, shoes, and accessories that pair well with each other, and can be easily mixed and matched to create multiple outfits that suit the style and needs of the wearer. Taking the time to create an individualized capsule wardrobe deters people from submitting to the temptations of fast-fashion, as well as simplifies the process of getting ready for the day.
Guide on how to get started with a capsule wardrobe here: https://importantenough.com/how-to-create-the-perfect-capsule-wardrobe/
The best thing to do when in need of additional clothing is to try to find items you need second-hand from a yard sale, thrift shop, or online marketplace. Buying second-hand can easily save you money, while also saving on textile waste.
When buying second-hand is not an option, choosing clothing made from sustainable materials like organic cotton, hemp, linen, bamboo, recycled cloth, etc., or choosing clothing from brands that are transparent about their production processes still helps to make up for some of the negative environmental impact brought on by introducing more products into existence.
Go the extra mile
One extra step that can be taken to minimize harm to the planet is to purchase a filter to help catch some of the synthetic microfibers that come off of clothing while washing, preventing them from entering and polluting the water system. This step may not fit the budget of all sustainability warriors, but another alternative to installing a filter is tossing your clothes in a filtration bag while washing, or adding a specially designed laundry ball that helps catch some of the microfibers that would otherwise be washed away.
Versions of these items can be found here: https://eluxemagazine.com/living/tech/5-great-microfiber-filters-to-help-stop-microplastic-pollution/
When considering living a sustainable lifestyle, the first thing that comes to mind may be the decisions you make at home and in your free-time. This makes sense considering that is when and where you have the most control, but the average person actually spends around one third of their lifetime at their job. With this apparent, sustainability practices in the workplace should be considered equally important as they are at home or in public.
Tips on how to have a Less Wasteful Workplace Kitchen
1. Instead of plastic bags, use reusable containers that seal such as silicone zip-bags, glass containers, or reusable plastic containers. Your office will want to have a few extra that people can borrow to take home leftovers in case they forget their own.
2. Instead of plasticware and disposable dining products, consider using reusable silverware, plates, bowls, etc.
3. If your office serves coffee, consider using a coffee a pot and washable mugs instead of disposable foam cups. Or, if using a Keurig (single use) coffee maker, use a reusable pod and ground coffee instead of single-use disposable pods.
4. If your office takes trips to the grocery store to stock snacks, beverages, or condiments be sure to bring reusable grocery bags with you to avoid needing to use disposable plastic bags.
At Lyon Software, we set up recycling bins for containers, cardboard, and paper, all labeled with details on which items are acceptable to go in. Once the bins fill up, we take them to one of our storage rooms, where we keep larger sorted bins to dump our smaller office bins into to collect the recycling until the time comes to take it to the recycling center- We try to make it very simple and efficient to encourage more people to participate in recycling, and have had great success!
Utilizing Natural Light
Instead of keeping the lights on in your office or work area all day, try to make a habit of flipping the lights off whenever you leave your area (going to complete a task in another area, going to the restroom, going to have lunch, etc.), or on bright days, you might not need extra light if you have a window in your work area, so consider working without extra lights on.
How to be Less Wasteful when Ordering and Shipping
1. Request sustainable packaging from Amazon if purchasing with them- you can do so by contacting their customer services via email or phone. You can also check with any shipping company or supplier you use to see if they have sustainable shipping alternatives and utilize them when applicable.
2. If you need to ship from your office, consider using more sustainable methods such as minimizing the amount of paper mail sent by digitizing what is sent, using recycled paper, and choosing envelopes without plastic windows.
Many people consider lifestyle choices and behaviors they feel will reduce harm to the Earth; Some recycle, some strive for zero waste, some eat a plant-based diet, and some choose to purchase items advertised as biodegradable.
Though there are several ways people can lessen their impact, purchasing items advertised as being biodegradable in particular has an appeal to people because it can seem like a more passive change because it is not uncommon for people to assume that biodegradable waste will disappear no matter what happens to it- This is not the case!
In order for biodegradation to occur, the presence of proper thermodynamic conditions and microorganisms are required. Putting organic or biodegradable waste into landfills does not support these necessary conditions and never gives wastes the opportunity to decompose, condemning them to reside in landfill space for decades.
In 2017, about 139.6 million tons of MSW (municipal solid waste) were landfilled in the United States (EPA), of that, nearly 94 million tons were organic wastes that would have been able to decompose if disposed of differently. Yikes!
Despite the bad news about limitations for biodegradable waste, do not be discouraged- Buying “biodegradable” products is an excellent choice if you know how to properly dispose of them. With these, composting is key!
Find local composting here: https://compostnow.org/compost-services/