It’s been over a year since China decided to no longer take a lot of recycling from the U.S. (They did this primarily by insisted on uncontaminated recycling.) I looked into this issue a few months ago. It turns out the trash and recycling system in this country is not in good shape. China has not changed its mind. And yet very few people are still talking about it. It appears to be a systemic problem, but nothing will change if enough people aren’t aware of the problem.
There are many items for which we have the technology to recycle, but are not accepted for recycling curbside. This includes many types of plastic. An example is polypropylene, which is the number 5 inside the recycling triangle and is usually not accepted curbside.
Basically everything that is not accepted in the recycling ends up in a landfill. That includes e-waste (if not given to a company that will recycle it), tires, diapers, plastics, paper (colored, treated etc.). Unfortunately, right now more things are ended up in landfills because China is not accepting it anymore. A story originally in the Guardian explains how many things are being incinerated or going to landfills. What it takes to deal with all of our waste simply doesn’t exist in the U.S. Perhaps just another reminder to reduce first, then reuse and then recycle.
I love to shop. I really do. Recently I was scraping ice off my car, or trying to. It wasn’t really working. I thought, well I guess I should go buy a new scraper. I thought, I can look around and maybe find a better version. I’m trying not to buy things unless I’m really going to use them, so every time something like this happens, I’m kind of excited. (Perhaps that makes my life a little sad, but mostly I’m just poor and like to shop.) After being excited I realized something. What I have isn’t working and I need an ice scraper that works in New England in the winter, but buying a new one means I’m going to be throwing out the old one. It will be put on the curb, dumped in a garbage truck and taken to a landfill where it will stay for decades, maybe centuries. The thing about it is there’s almost nothing I can do about it. If I took my scraper to a hardware store and asked them to sharpen it and fix it for me, they’d look at me like I was nuts and tell me to buy a new one. Our economy isn’t based on making things that last a long time and getting them fixed if anything happens. Mass production has created an economy where we buy things as cheaply as possible and replace them when they break.
In order for this post not to be a total downer, I’m going to give a few pieces of advice, based on The Green Book by Elizabeth Rogers and Thomas M. Kostigen. Try to buy things with minimal packaging, and as much recycled and recyclable packaging as possible. Shop local because they won’t have spent a lot of energy to get the products there from far away. Shop at secondhand clothing stores first. Consider buying clothes made from organic cotton and natural dyes. Use rechargeable batteries (4 rechargeable batters can replace 100 regular AAs).
This is my second post about my trip to Germany. I went with my family and we rented an apartment. It was wonderful to have our own kitchen (unlike in a hotel) and it meant that I felt more like part of the regular life of Germany. This includes small things that they do to lesson their environmental impact. Things I think the U.S., or at least Boston, could learn from. On the very first day, my family ran across an example of this in the supermarket. In grocery stores, nobody bags your items. In fact, there are no bags except the flimsy plastic kind for produce. Paper or plastic isn’t a question. You better have your own bag, or of course you buy a reusable one. This extends to other types of shopping. In the U.S. when you buy something the cashier generally puts it right into a bag. Not in Germany. If it seems likely you need one, they ask.
There was also curbside pickup of compost, which does exist in some places in the U.S., but not where I live. The recycling was also split up curbside into plastic, paper and glass. I even saw glass bins that split up clear from colored glass.
I wanted to talk briefly about bicycling. There were bikes everywhere and no one in the cities where helmets. The only helmets I saw were on people on good road bikes going on obviously long rides in the country. Part of it is must be that they are simply not afraid of being hit by cars. This is clearly true in pedestrian zones (that mostly include bikes) and also the bike lane system is phenomenal. In Austria, most of the bike lanes weren’t even part of the car lane. They were more attached to the sidewalk. Believe me when I saw the bike lanes (or lack thereof) and the drivers in Cambridge mean I’m always going to be wearing a helmet.