Until I assembled this random assortment of stuff from around our house, I thought we were doing pretty well as an environmentally-aware couple: rejecting plastic straws, carrying our own bags, going meatless, driving an EV, all things about which we’ve gotten diligent and even a touch self-congratulatory. Now, I’m not so sure. How to dispose of these items without sending them to The Great Pacific Garbage Patch has become an obsession of mine. So please forgive my attempt to infect you with the same.
Of course, our voluntary behavior modification falls into the category of First World problems and may be of little or no impact on global warming that is already locked in. So, why bother? One answer is, if enough of us to whom so much is given do something, perhaps we can buy some time for solutions that will benefit all. Case in point, this week, Floridians overwhelmingly voted Yes on Amendment #4 that supports affordable solar power in the Sunshine State. This is an excellent shift with legislative muscle, but there’s another side to this that gets short shrift: we are still not doing enough to train ourselves to live within planetary limits. As the saying goes: to live more simply so that others — and not just our own species — might simply live.
No matter how you look at it, dealing with First World consumption and waste is a wicked problem that isn’t going away without a huge movement — individual, local, state, and national. If you need convincing about how this issue deepens the have/have not chasm, you must read Katherine Boo’s Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity. For the design perspective, try William McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things.
Fortunately, there is no shortage of information about addressing the issue of post-consumer waste — it turns out there’s money to be made in reclamation of many materials — and you’ll find some helpful links below. But let’s state the obvious: the best place to tackle waste is to begin at the beginning: “Think before you buy or toss,” advises Bridget Johnson of Green Girl Recycling. And that second thought should include not only the item purchased itself but how it is packaged. This is a special interest of mine as I used to write for both the manufacturer of a popular clear bottling plastic and for a packaging trade publication. So I should know better than to find myself in this dilemma: true, clear containers make salad greens look inviting and maybe keep them fresh longer. But can the plastic be recycled back into pellets? In most cases, the answer is No, though some come close to that ideal, and may wind up in other value-added products, e.g. PET bottles to construction materials. That said, I’m better off choosing loose greens and vegetables as I do when the farmers markets are in full swing in my area, or those with minimal wrapping.
Hearing aid batteries. They are small, but you may go through a lot of them in a year. Best advice from the experts: look for those that specify Mercury-free. These can be safely disposed of with household waste. More info here: http://www.seniorcitizensguide.com/articles/pittsburgh/hearing-aid-battery-disposal.htm Packaging (paper and blister plastic) should also carry some version of the familiar chasing arrows recycling symbol.
Durable Packaging. The handsome heavy case you see in the photo did a fine job of protecting the mini-speaker that works with my Bluetooth-enabled smart phone, but what a bear to recycle! A month after I purchased it, I haven’t figured out how to recycle the various heavy-duty plastics it came in, or even if I can at all. Maybe I can use it for storing cotton balls or pens. My electric toothbrush, an appliance I have come to rely on for optimum cleaning, is another puzzle. What to do with the so-called disposable brush part which is made up of so many materials, molded plastic being just one? Anybody? Of course, nearly all plastics are petroleum-based, so we’re basically supporting an industry whose negative environmental impact is well documented.
Health and Beauty Aids. The lipstick, tooth picks and bug sprayer are similarly problematic because they are either made from or packaged in more than one type of plastic. True for most HABA items whether bottles, tubes or jars. The containers themselves may carry a recycle # designation, but the caps almost never. Even if every part was designated recyclable, I honestly cannot imagine the municipal facility that would separate them appropriately, so chances are these will wind up in landfill forever.
“Doggie Bags.” Time was, you got a little brown paper bag for leftovers. Today, not so much. So here’s how it goes. Styrofoam #6 is cheap to manufacture and has many uses, from life rafts to ubiquitous fast-food containers. It cannot be recycled with other plastics. Restaurants are not going to stop using those god-awful styrofoam clam shells until we 1. stop ordering more than we can eat (a whole other problem), and/or 2. start bringing our own packaging for leftovers, or 3. municipalities start banning the use of the material as San Francisco just did.
Where can you turn to? Your local municipality’s solid waste authority usually has a website (mine: http://www.swa.org/) with a ton of information of what can be brought to the facility, often translated into short handy guides. Most take CFL bulbs. Many take large appliances. We may eventually see a roll out of the Extended Producer Responsibility that makes the producer responsible for the entire life-cycle of a product. Read more: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Extended_producer_responsibility This goes well beyond Product Stewardship, though that is also a hopeful sign: http://productstewardship.net/products/mercury/resources/programs/business
Incandescent bulbs cannot be recycled, but since they contain no toxic material, you can safely add to household waste. Retailers will often take back fluorescent bulbs, printer refills and even a variety of electronics. Best Buys has been a leader in this and has won awards for the service. See Electronics Take Back: http://www.electronicstakeback.com/how-to-recycle-electronics/manufacturer-takeback-programs/
There is even a strong Business Case for Product Take-Back: http://www.triplepundit.com/special/circular-economy-and-green-electronics/is-there-a-business-case-for-product-take-back/
And finally, my favorite FAQ’s from Grist’s green expert, Ask Umbra: http://grist.org/article/umbra_faqs/ Many layers of information by simply clicking on internal links.