Why is recycling such a challenge?
Updated: Nov 18, 2020
Think about your daily routine. You wake up, maybe drink some coffee, grab some avocado toast from your favorite restaurant, a plastic water bottle on your way to the gym. What do you do with the waste you create?
On average, Americans create 4.4 pounds of trash every single day. That may not seem like a lot but, that is 22 billion plastic bottles every year. Enough office paper to construct a 12-foot-high wall from Los Angeles to Manhattan. It is 300 laps around the equator in paper and plastic cups, forks, and spoons. It is 500 disposable cups per average American worker.
So ya, that’s a lot.
However, combating this problem of waste creation can be easier than you think if we start small. Think of recycling and throwing something into the trash as your last resort. Switch out anything you use on a regular basis with a reusable version.
For example, instead of drinking from plastic bottles, switch to a reusable one. Instead of using plastic straws in your morning smoothie, invest in some metal ones.
From a large scale perspective, it is easy to go blind to these pressing climate issues that surround us.
So on a small-scale perspective, let’s take a dive into something that can easily be seen and achieved that’s right in front of our eyes - recycling!
The origins of recycling
Recycling has two major parts that come with it - education about it and the actual action of recycling. However, it is an overwhelming topic. And as time has moved forward, our recycling efforts have moved backward.
The idea of recycling is something that has been around for decades, mainly due to the lack of resources that people had back in the day. However, a lack of resources calls for a creative mind to discover how the products readily available to them can be used for other purposes.
When the Great Depression occurred, there was a large need for individuals to collect scrap metal, food scraps and pieces of plastic. But, to no surprise, a lot of this would pile up in people's homes. So, Americans began to recycle in order to deal with the massive amounts of waste produced during the second half of the 20th century.
When this idea became more concrete, people began to see a large shift in the mutual benefits of reusing and recycling.
Instead of going to the store to purchase a new dress, ladies would take their one dress to the tailor and have them alter it to fit the current trends.
However, after people caught on to this idea, curbside pickup emerged, but it called for labor and money. Due to this, people stopped wanting to partake in the act because it stopped being a way for consumers to get more from their purchases and became something that cost people money or at least time. This was the beginning of the end.
In fact, a new climate change clock installed in Manhattan’s Union Square tells us that we only have seven years to make change before an irreversible climate change happens.
Recycling is an overwhelming topic and can be looked at through many different lenses. But it is also something everyone in the world has some experience with.
In order to break it down, we have to start small - and locally.
Educating the public on the importance of recycling
Chirstina Moskos, the recycling coordinator for Charleston County, noted that education is one of the most important pieces to recycling. If people are not educated about recycling then the rest of the system won’t work.
“It’s really such a huge industry and it's almost like there has to be synergy between all of those different areas for recycling to truly work, If we can't educate people and make sure the recycling that we collect at the curb is a high quality, then we can't sell it and on the flip side if people don’t want to buy recycled material to make into new products then there's no point in us having a recycling program in Charleston and collecting at the curb,” Moskos said.
Moskos said over the past few years Charleston County has been all over the place in its recycling organization and efforts becuase for the past 5-10 years it has been in the process of building a new Materials Recovery Facility.
This is where the recycling material gets processed, bailed up, and sold for use both internationally and domestically. The current facility for the county is very outdated and the facility has not been able to keep up with the volume of materials that they have been receiving.
“We’ve relied on nearby countries to help us process the material,” Moskos said.
In some cases the facility will receive recycling that is contaminated. When a recycling facility receives contaminated material, it almost always is sent to a landfill. This is why the idea of education is so important. The purpose of recycling is to reuse materials. Many don’t know the materials that are good for reuse, which causes more of a problem.
“We always use the term, ‘when in doubt, keep it out,’” Moskos said.
Moskos believes that when people recycle contaminated material, they are not doing it from a negative place. They are doing it in hopes that it is recyclable - something she calls “wish cycling.”
“Someone is hoping and wishing that the item they are standing in front of the bin holding can actually be recycled,” Moskos said, adding that one time someone brought in a set of golf clubs hoping it could be recycled, "but it couldn't."
In order to educate the public on what can and cannot be recycled, the facility does a lot of print and media coverage, billboard ads, group presentations and bus ads. They’ll do as much as they can to get the word out there.
“It's so important that we hammer home that education, making sure that people understand what contamination in the recycling stream means,” Moskos said.
How to get the public to recycle
Darcy Everet, zero waste coordinator for College of Charleston’s Office of Sustainability, also pointed to the importance of educating the public.
“My two big goals that I focus on are, one we want to be carbon neutral, meaning that we offset our carbon emissions, and our second goal is to be zero waste,” Everet said.
Although there has been some confusion in Charleston County about how and where it is recycling, Everet said the county actually does recycle most of the material it receives and should be able to do it more efficiently once its new recycling center is open.
But a primary problem is the idea of “co-mingled recycling.” This is when all recyclable materials are grouped together, making it harder to recycle locally since it is harder to get clean material. This has been an issue in Charleston County.
In the past Charleston had been “bailing up” these materials and sending them to China as “recyclable materials.”
But the National Sword, an organization in charge of the recycling plants in China stated that they would no longer accept the United States recycling because they felt that America is just “dumping our problem onto them,” Everet said, adding that the Office of Sustainability has changed all of its recycling bins on campus in the past year to make the list of what can go in more specific.
She hopes that this change will produce cleaner recyclable materials.
Everet’s first goal is for campus to become “carbon neutral” meaning that we collectively offset all of our carbon emissions. Her second goal is to move to a zero waste community.
She said that typically this looks like “90% of all waste that would typically be sent to a landfill will instead be diverted to recycling plants,” Everett said.
The following graphic depicts the percentages of waste diversion at the College of Charleston.
Unfortunately, over half of the waste collected on campus is sent to a nearby landfill.
When waste is sent to a landfill it harms the environment with greenhouse gases, and many materials that end up as waste contain toxic substances. Over time, these toxins leach into our soil and groundwater, and become environmental hazards for years.
Everet said the two biggest things on campus they are trying to do to achieve those goals is educate students first so they can then institute their own call for action.
Being educated enough to begin actively recycling is usually where things get lost in translation.
If students aren't educated on the matter, then no one will take the time to recycle. One of the things that Evert and her team recently implemented on campus was more specific labeling on their recycling bins. This has helped those students who aren't educated on the topic to at least have an idea of what can be recycled.
Recycling is one piece of the climate change puzzle. If Americans don’t start now, the country and world will be faced with a problem bigger than any could imagine.
So, let’s start with three tangible, easy things to do:
Think of ways you can reduce your waste in every aspect of life.
Consider recycling a last resort.
Use a reusable water bottle and support the use of recycled goods.
The Office of Sustainability encourages students to start making a change now.
One small change has the power to impact the entire world, so why not do it?