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.
Last August I moved to the Philadelphia area in order to go to grad school. I am going to get a Masters in Environmental Science. But this blog post isn’t going to be about that. This post is about what I learned about living sustainably as I moved into my own apartment.
My apartment, like most places in the U.S., has single stream recycling. My goal was going to be to limit the amount of things I put in the trash, as well as the amount of things that go into recycling. I have handkerchiefs around the house to use and wash, and tissues only when I really need to blow my nose. But the truth is a lot of goes into the trash and recycling is food packaging. And I haven’t solved that.
However, there are certain items in the kitchen that generally go into the trash and then into a landfill I can reduce my use of. Paper towels is one of them, so I went out and bought small cloths and use them instead. In August I came with two rolls of paper towels (bathroom cleaning, cleaning up after my cat) and I’m proud to say I’ve used less than half of one roll.
Finally, I’ve worked hard to reduce my use of food storage that goes into the trash. I have yet to buy ziploc bags and I do have plastic tupperware and I also keep jars and other containers that I can reuse from items I purchase. I have also bought beeswax food wraps which do a good job of keeping produce fresh and covering bowls in the fridge. (Not a complete substitute for aluminum foil which can go in the oven, but close.) I also use reusable ties and clips. Maybe it’s time to look at your kitchen and see what you can replace with reusable items?
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).
I finally finished The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding although it took me a long time. I’m not sure why it took me so long. It’s a very interesting book with a lot to say about the impact of climate change on other aspects of our world. It’s subtitle is Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.
I have never really understood economics. I felt like I was beginning to by listening more to NPR, especially Marketplace. One of the things they always talk about is how many jobs have been added each month. I always wondered where those jobs were coming from and if they could possibly be permanent jobs. How many more things are there for people to do that aren’t being done? It turns out this is a good question and not purely economic ignorance on my part. Paul Gilding says that to get as close as possible to zero unemployment people need to work less so that more people can work. This will only work if our economy is no longer based on growth – on everyone having more money to spend it on more things. This is a growth economy.
Paul Gilding argues that our economy, a growth economy, cannot be sustainable. The Earth and its resources are finite. The idea that everyone should earn more and spend more and have more things doesn’t work. He says we need – and are going to be forced to switch to – a sustainable economy. The good news is that there is evidence that the richer you are – and the more stuff you have – doesn’t make you happier. So quality of life may actually improve in a sustainable economy rather than a growth economy. I found this hard to accept at first. I think more money will make me happier, but apparently that’s because I haven’t reached the income where I don’t have to worry about making it every month. Once you’re not concerned about money on a regular basis and are able to spend money on leisure activities, having more money no longer matters to your happiness.
Paul Gilding goes through what he expects will happen as our economy can no longer grow and the climate crisis gets worse. He thinks that a crisis or catastrophe will occur and suddenly the world will be forced to confront climate change. We will finally be forced to act. He titled this chapter The One-Degree War. This one degree of global warming means the Co2 concentration needs to be about 350 parts per million. (This number has been advocated by many people, including scientists.) Gilding claims that although it seems unrealistic now, once the world is mobilized people all over will find ways to make it happen. Despite what may seem like a doomsday message – our economy is unsustainable and we are headed for a crisis – he remains optimistic mostly because he believes in the creativity and intelligence of people.