We Need to Talk About Recycling

You’re not recycling as much as you think you are.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, ever since the #BanTheStraw debate has been in the forefront of everyone’s mind, but I’ve always been into recycling.

I was always that “recycling nazi” in college who sifted through the trash to pull out that stray plastic cup, yelling at my roommates and putting a list of recyclables on the fridge (now my sister does it). Everywhere I’ve lived, I always separated my papers and plastics according to the rules of my township (thanks Dad). I gave up plastic bottles and bags a long time ago. And I try to bring tupperware and my own cups whenever I can (thanks Mom). I’ve even done research on plastic bag ban trends and written this how-to post on how to give up plastic as much as possible (it’s not as hard as it sounds).

But ever since reading NatGeo’s Plastic or Planet series and this Buzzfeed article on trash cans that aren’t really separated from recycling bins, I’ve started asking around, and we have a serious problem. WE AREN’T RECYCLING AS MUCH AS WE THINK WE ARE.

My sister watches her college staff dump the contents of their recycling bin into the trash can, after her and her roommates take the time to sort our their recyclables. My best friend works at a stadium where they put out recycling bins for the fans, but don’t have the “space” to bring in recycling trucks, so they just throw all the recyclables into the trash cans at the end of the night. On my most recent trip to Starbucks, I took this photo of the trash can — which is recycling? Which is trash? Does it even matter? (Not to mention that Starbucks was just applauded around the world for pledging to cut down on their plastic waste. Clearly not from this store.)

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Another issue in this whole process for homeowners is improper recycling. A lot of neighborhoods and townships participate in single-stream recycling, where everything is sent to one plant and sorted there — but this comes with problems. While mixing paper, plastic, metal, and glass may be convenient for the public, some of these “recyclables” may end up going to the landfill because they’re too small, contaminated, or damaged to be recycled. There’s also this tiny little problem about the international trash crisis we’ve created, but I’ll touch on that another time.

Despite all this, there are things you can do to help cut down your recycling.

To make sure you’re recycling properly at home, check your local township’s website — there should be guidelines there. There’s also this handy EPA guide on how to recycle everything properly — from batteries to tires. And remember — CLEAN YOUR RECYCLABLES before you send them out to the curb.

The best solution would be to use less, and reuse what you do have. To start, take a reusable cup to Starbucks, ditch the straw, bring your reusable bags to the grocery store, and try to cut down on your plastic as much as possible — the planet will thank you.

 

You Don’t Need Solar Panels to Support Renewable Energy in Your Home

Renewable energy is all the rage — and for good reason. For starters, a lot of our carbon emissions come from the electricity sector, so switching to renewable resources like wind and solar would decrease the amount of carbon dioxide we’re releasing into the atmosphere, which warms the planet. Burning fossil fuels also contributes to public health issues, where renewables can help tip the scales. And renewable energy is, well, renewable!

But not everyone can get solar panels on their house (hey, renters). And there’s a solution! In comes Clearly EnergyJust put in your address and see what renewable power options are available for your home — from switching energy suppliers to shopping for efficient products.

If your zip code is available for the renewable upgrade, Clearly Energy will give you a matrix of options, showing your current utility rate, utility rate under renewable power, and a plethora of provider options to choose from, depending what matters to you — from wind, to solar, to carbon equivalent numbers.

Here’s how it works. If your power company participates in the program, you’ll switch your provider to the new, renewable one. You’ll still pay your bills through the energy company, and they’ll still fix your wires if anything goes wrong or your power goes out. But you’ll be supporting that fresh, clean, wind or solar after you sign up.

Here in my house in New Jersey, it works like this: my power company, Jersey Central Power and Light, works with Arcadia Power to purchase renewable credits every month to SUPPORT wind projects and power in the form of renewable energy certificates.

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In some cases, in order to truly support clean energy, you’ll need to install solar panels on your roof (or install a wind turbine, which is a little more costly and difficult). Clearly Energy can help with, too, through Energy Sage.

If there are no options for you in the clean energy realm with your home, Clearly Energy will give you options, tailored to your home, to help you go green and save on your energy bills — who doesn’t like to save money?

And if you can’t do any of these things for any reason, there are still ways you can go green and save electricity, which include switching to LED light bulbs, using “advanced” power strips, and just reducing your energy use overall (like turning the lights off when you leave a room).

No matter why you do it, whether it’s to power your electric car with green energy, or to save a little money on your electric bill, it’s all worth it to fight the good fight against climate change. May your days be sunny (or windy, whichever way your energy likes it!).

Resources to check out renewables where you live:

Please, PLEASE, cut down on your plastic use

I am BEGGING YOU. This isn’t a drill anymore — plastic is EVERYWHERE. And it’s a huge problem.

From the National Geographic June 2018 issue:

Because plastic wasn’t invented until the late 19th century, and production really only took off around 1950, we have a mere 9.2 billion tons of the stuff to deal with. Of that, more than 6.9 billion tons have become waste. And of that waste, a staggering 6.3 billion tons never made it to a recycling bin—a figure that stunned the scientists who crunched the numbers in 2017.

No one knows how much unrecycled plastic waste ends up in the ocean, Earth’s last sink. In 2015, Jenna Jambeck, a University of Georgia engineering professor, caught everyone’s attention with a rough estimate: between 5.3 million and 14 million tons each year just from coastal regions. Most of it isn’t thrown off ships, she and her colleagues say, but is dumped carelessly on land or in rivers, mostly in Asia. It’s then blown or washed into the sea. Imagine five plastic grocery bags stuffed with plastic trash, Jambeck says, sitting on every foot of coastline around the world—that would correspond to about 8.8 million tons, her middle-of-the-road estimate of what the ocean gets from us annually. It’s unclear how long it will take for that plastic to completely biodegrade into its constituent molecules. Estimates range from 450 years to never.

I want to point this specific part out to you: “It’s unclear how long it will take for that plastic to completely biodegrade into its constituent molecules. Estimates range from 450 years to never.”

We can only do so much to clean up what’s out there. So here’s what you can do to slow it down:

1. Stop using single use items

We all do it. Even me (hey, I never claimed to be perfect). But we can be better about this. One of most impactful things we can do is STOP USING STRAWS. There’s a great replacement coming to market soon for a traveling, collapsible straw, but in the meantime, just buy straws and take them with you if you have to — or just stop using them. K-Cups are just as bad, if not worse (they could wrap around the planet 10 TIMES). If you have to use them, make your own reusable ones. Buy compostable ones (though, those aren’t that great either). Cut down on your deliverable meal plan boxes, or at least choose one that doesn’t have as much single use plastic. I’ve found that Hello Fresh does the best with this (Blue Apron’s packaging is TERRIBLE for the Earth), so just be aware of what you’re contributing).

Globally, 18 percent of plastic is recycled, up from nearly zero in 1980. Plastic bottles are one of the most widely recycled products. But other items, such as drinking straws, are harder to recycle and often discarded.

I could go on for days about single use plastic bottles and bags, but I’ll spare you. So just don’t use them. Use reusable bags — keep them in your car, in your desk, in your spouses’s car… wherever it takes for you to remember to bring them in the store. Buy reusable produce bags to take with you. And FOR THE LOVE OF THE EARTH, stop buying plastic water bottles.

Meanwhile, ocean plastic is estimated to kill millions of marine animals every year. Nearly 700 species, including endangered ones, are known to have been affected by it. Some are harmed visibly—strangled by abandoned fishing nets or discarded six-pack rings. Many more are probably harmed invisibly. Marine species of all sizes, from zooplankton to whales, now eat microplastics, the bits smaller than one-fifth of an inch across.

2. RECYCLE EVERYTHING

And if you can’t when you’re out and about, take it home and do it. Make sure you actually can in your recycling bin — check out this list to see if you’re recycling correctly, or your items right to a recycling plant. Also pay attention to HOW to recycle in your town. Do your recyclables need to be washed? If so, rise them (but save water while doing it, ok?). Do your paper products need to be tied with twine? (Mine do, which is strange, but whatever, buy some twine and get it done).

3. Be more conscious about your purchases

Are you about to buy those brussels sprouts already chopped up, sitting in styrofoam, wrapped in plastic? Don’t. That tiny package will have a way bigger impact on our planet than it’s manufactuer ever intended (see that little blurb from NatGeo above), so just think twice before buying unnecessary waste.

If you can disrupt the cycle by not buying plastic at the source, hopefully we can slow down the amount being put back onto the planet.

From National Geographic:

“This isn’t a problem where we don’t know what the solution is,” says Ted Siegler, a Vermont resource economist who has spent more than 25 years working with developing nations on garbage. “We know how to pick up garbage. Anyone can do it. We know how to dispose of it. We know how to recycle.” It’s a matter of building the necessary institutions and systems, he says—ideally before the ocean turns, irretrievably and for centuries to come, into a thin soup of plastic.

There are things we can do to help this global problem. So let’s do them.

 

A Non-Scientist’s #SparkofScience

This was originally written in in 2016 for Nautilus Magazine’s Spark of Science Issue. It has been updated for 2018.

I am not a scientist, but I am a science communicator.

As a web and social media producer for Climate Central, I’m surrounded in science daily. I tweet about rising CO2 levels. I write stories about the issues our country faces in a world with climate change. I create interactives showing what sea level rise projections could do to major cities around the world. I write social media video scripts about declining Arctic sea ice.

I always thought my spark of science came through my Earth 100 class at Penn State with Dr. Laura Guertin, a kick-ass marine geologist and professor who introduced me to the connection between educational technology and Earth science. Who better to teach me about our changing planet than an American Geophysical Union blogger AND #SparkofScience blogger?

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But after a bit of introspective thought, I found that Dr. G’s class was just a continuation of my love for the Earth.

When I was 3, I channelled Julia Butterfly Hill and hung out in a Redwood tree. My elementary, middle and high school years were spent RVing to federal lands all across the U.S. and Canada. I have spent countless hours hiking through our National Forests, and many more driving to National Parks. Grad school in Montana brought me to the dwindling glaciers of Glacier National Park , and curiosity has taken me from the White Rim Trail in Utah to Skyline Drive in Shenandoah National Park. I’ve blogged about my dedication of wilderness protection for the Wilderness Society, and been featured on National Parks Traveler.

My intrigue with wild places hasn’t peaked yet, but has turned into a fierce dedication to educating the public on what climate change will do to the natural world. And even though I’m not a scientist, I’m using my spark of science to tell everyone about it.