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.

 

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.

 

Exploration: Biosphere 2

Imagine (voluntarily) locking yourself in an enclosed space for two years, growing your own food within a glass bubble.

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The rainforest inside Biosphere 2.

This was reality for eight scientists and researchers — the “Biospherians” — who entered in the Biosphere 2‘s first mission from 1991-1993. The Biosphere, tucked in the mountains in Tucson, Arizona, was invented to see if humans could survive in an enclosed space in case of extreme future CO2 levels (which is already becoming a reality) or a space colony, for example.

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An outside look of the main room, which houses the mangroves, savanna, desert and ocean.

The Biospherians lived off the 5 ecosystems in the Biosphere 2, producing crops in a self-sustaining bubble. The bubble is made up of several ecosystems, including the rainforest, ocean, savanna and desert, to name a few, all of which are populated by plants and animals.

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The rainforest room.

The Biospherians cultivated their own garden, which produced a very “farm to table” approach to food, as they could only prepare what was ready to eat.

Over the next two years they grew 80 percent of their food, something NASA has never attempted. They recycled their sewage and effluent, drinking the same water countless times, totally purified by their plants, soil, atmosphere, and machines. (Discovery Magazine)

Despite good intentions and fact that the scientists made it 2 years within the walls, the experiment has largely been publicized as a failure. Rising CO2 levels inside the glass dropped oxygen levels, and food production waned.

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Plants in the main room above the “ocean,”

As oxygen was converted to carbon dioxide, free oxygen in the atmosphere declined. By January 1993, Biosphere 2’s carbon dioxide levels were 12 times that of the outside, and oxygen levels were what mountaineers get at 17,000 feet. The crew’s doctor was having trouble adding up simple figures and disqualified himself from duty. So, a year and four months into the mission, tank trucks containing 31,000 pounds of liquid oxygen started driving up the access road to the site. (Discovery Magazine)

Despite the deemed “failure,” the Biosphere 2 experiment left behind some great science, namely an entirely enclosed infrastructure with the aim of keeping humans (and plants and animals) alive. I walked around the basement of the dome, as well as the “lungs,” and was blown away by the recycled sewage and water systems, which they recycled for 2 years.

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It also informed how the carbon cycle and oxygen dynamics in humans connect, as well as continues to provide ecological data and fodder for visiting scientists.

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Backside of the Biosphere 2 where the Biospherian’s lived.

And why Biosphere 2, you may be wondering? Because Earth is the original Biosphere. Read more about the Biosphere 2 here.

Earth Week 2015: how are the oceans doing, anyway?

Welcome to my annual Earth Week series! I believe that protecting the Earth deserves more than one day, so I’ve given it a week. Check back every day from April 20-24 to learn about a new environmental issue (or solution!) each day.

Sometimes we forget about the oceans, despite the fact that they take up 70% of the Earth’s surface. Or, more specifically, we forget to think about what ends up there.

A study in the journal Science found that we deposit between 5.3 and 14 million tons of plastic in the oceans every year. I mean sure, that’s a huge range. But to make it more fathomable, OnEarth made analogies for plastic totaling 9 million tons. 9 million tons of plastic is 136 billion plastic jugs, which, if stacked, would “reach more than halfway to Mars.” 9 million tons of plastic is “also the equivalent of piling five grocery bags full of plastic on every foot of coastline in the world.”

So, in other words, that’s a lot of plastic. And however you quantify it, a lot of it is going into the oceans.

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If you don’t know, there is a huge pile of plastic floating in the Pacific Ocean called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The patch is actually a group of trash piles that collect between the west coast of the US and the East Coast of Asia. The trash “vortex” collects in a convergence zone in the ocean – where warm water from the the southern hemisphere meets with cold water from the Arctic. You can see the different trash piles below:

The plastic converges here because a lot of it isn’t biodegradable, considering it’s plastic. That, paired with the fact that we produce 620% more plastic than we did as a society in 1975, is causing problems for marine life as well as the health of the ocean. Mashable reports that when plastic is jostled in the ocean, it is sometimes broken up into tiny shreds, small enough to be ingested my animals and avoid nets of those trying to clean up the sea.

Garbage washed up in Hawaii

So what can you do to help? Here are some ideas:

  • Use less plastic: we only recycle 14% of plastic we use in the US, and that’s pretty bad. If you live in an area where recycling is easily accessible, please just recycle. Just put that plastic bottle in your recycling bin!
  • Stop using products with plastic micro-beads in them: okay, so ICYMI, your facial cleanser probably has tiny pieces of plastic in it. Do you have exfoliating beads? Bingo. Simple solution – don’t use these! Find other products . If you’re inclined to take a stand, find out more here.
  • Reuse the plastic you do use: use extra plastic jars to house snacks instead of using plastic snack/sandwich bags. You can also reuse the tupperware from lunch meat to take your sandwiches to work. There are endless possibilities!
  • Don’t use plastic bottles: if you read my blog, you know plastic bottles are horrible, not just for the environment because of plastic pollution, but because of water extraction too. The bottles are made of fossil fuels, too, which doesn’t help the Earth much.

It’s easy to make change – just pick what works for you and stick to it! A little goes a long way. Thanks for joining me for this Earth Week series!

This post concludes my Earth Week posts for 2015. Click here for more!