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  • Quinn Swanson

Plastics and Recycling

For decades we’ve been hearing and answering the siren call of recycling. Simply seeing the “chasing arrows” symbol triggers an ingrained waste-handling habit. The recycling message has been so consistent for so long that we’ve made the assumption that recycling is not only a moral imperative but that everything that looks even remotely recyclable can and is recyclable. The hard truth is that unfortunately this messaging has set us up for failure.

Five clear plastic containers including clam shells

Wishcycling is when a well-meaning individual puts materials they believe or expect are recyclable into the recycling. The recycling from the individual is aggregated with recycling from the rest of the community and all the would-be recyclables are then bailed together at a recycling processing facility.

Stacks of bales of plastics for recycling

However, the presence of wishcycled items in the bail leads to what the industry calls contamination – meaning that the truly recyclable materials have non-recyclables mixed in. If it is determined there are too many non-recyclables, too much contamination, that bail of material is no longer viable and will be garbage. It’s quite frustrating that the exact opposite of what the well-intentioned individual wants has come about through their actions. This is the primary reason that the slogan “If in doubt, throw it out” exists and should be followed.

The Challenge of Plastic

Plastic is absolutely a wildly versatile material. It makes our modern lives, as we know them, possible. A beautiful though double-edged byproduct of our modern lives is that we not only don’t know what it takes to create those wonderful plastic conveniences, we also have no idea what it takes to recycle them. The majority of people live a safe physical and mental distance from these toxic processes meaning we can choose to remain disconnected from their damage.

This disconnection has lulled the average consumer into a comfort level with consuming/purchasing products that are unnecessary and/or wrapped in unnecessary plastic. The ubiquity of plastic makes it difficult to be a sustainably-conscious consumer. I challenge you to pay attention and when possible make plastic free/less plastic choices.

Many product manufacturers have capitalized on our deep interest in and responsibility to recycle by putting the chasing arrows emblem on material that is only recyclable in specialized facilities in very limited locales. Labeling confusion is very understandable. What the chasing arrows are triangulating around is typically a number. That number indicates the chemical make-up of the plastic. The recyclability of that number is not determined by the fact it may be surrounded by the “recycling arrows."

Recycling bins on kitchen counter

Instead the recyclability of that number is determined by the local recycling hauler.

YOU Have the Power

Wield your purchasing power for good. When you know what is recyclable in your area, you can use that as part of your purchasing criteria - don’t buy (or limit) #7s for example if they can’t be recycled locally. Another way to cut plastic is to buy and portion foodstuffs (snacks, nuts, etc.) yourself instead of purchasing single serving portions. There are many different and myriad ways to cut your plastic use down. Many of them you’ve heard - invest in reusables, bring your own fabric bag, bring your own reusable take-out containers, decline plastic utensils/straws, use reusable cups/mugs/bottles, and so on.

Some more tips:

  • Buy items with recycled content. In order for there to be a market for our recyclables, consumers need to “close the loop” by buying items that include recycled content. Seek out products that include recycled content.

  • Demand changes from brands. Ok, perhaps ask nicely. Either way, let companies/corporations/brands know what you want. We have the {respons}ability to ask for better.

  • Know AND Follow the guidelines for your local recycling.

  • Eliminate wishcycling - yours, your family, neighbors, and beyond by knowing and sharing the rules for recycling in your community.

And finally, remember Recycle is the last of the 3 R’s - Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Recycling is simply not the solution to plastic pollution. Focus first on the traditional R’s - Reduce and Reuse and some of the newer R’s - Rethink and Refuse before leaning on recycling.


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