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Does Recycling Really Work?

I know you're all wondering, as I certainly am, what's the deal with today's recycling system? Is my recycling going to China? Is it being taken to the landfill? Is it actually worth my time to sort out my recyclables? And finally...what really is the best way to ensure I am making the most of the recycling infrastructure available to me here in my state? Don't fret, sustainability nerd on the case and ready to illuminate the issue!

First, let's talk about China, and its relationship to our trash system. China had been buying certain types of plastics in the millions of tons from the U.S., and everyone else, up until they halted nearly all imports in January 2018. All this time, they had been using advanced methods and cheap labor to process and reuse the plastics for their engineering endeavors and selling the materials to the highest bidder. One of their main reasons for halting the import is that Americans simply struggle to sort their recycling properly and there was far too much food contamination for them to sell the salvaged recycling at a good price. It's not hard for me to conclude that we need some community support for learning how to properly sort our trash.

Truth is, it's not particularly the consumer's fault. Going all the way back to the elementary school level, there is little consistent education on proper recycling practices. What's more, schools often lack the infrastructure and funding for staff to create these sustainable systems. Ultimately one of the largest issues is that corporations are still allowed to churn out single use plastics covering nearly all of their products. Should the companies making billions shift their practices or the little guy? You tell me. Adding to the problem, we have been shipping off plastics to China instead of investing in the extra jobs for proper sorting, education to expand and diversify our engineering field, and projects lead by innovators trying to engineer solutions.

Another problem is that without the funding for machinery and staff to sort recyclables, many waste management facilities have simply told their residents to throw certain plastics in the garbage, where they are thrown in a landfill, a large hole in the ground where we throw all of our "disposables." This got me thinking, have you ever heard a widespread announcement from waste management about things like this? I know I haven't. Why aren't these important community problems announced like the ads flashing at us from all angles on Instagram and Facebook? I think it's because no one really wants to pay for them. Imagine the widespread outrage about more than half of our plastics going directly to a landfill instead of back into a circular pattern where they can be used again and again.

So having heard about some of the problems facing the waste management industry currently, we can discuss the widespread problems plastics are causing the environment. Firstly, here is a giant floating island of garbage in the middle of the ocean, circulating endlessly in the spiral currents called gyres. According to NOAA's current maps, there are three collections of garbage, named the great Pacific Garbage Patch consisting of the Western Garbage Patch, Eastern Garbage Patch, and an area that's more spread out in between called the Subtropical Convergence Zone. Countless beaches are littered with our waste: toothbrushes, straws, drink lids, and razors. Shore birds, fish, and other sea life are eating the plastic and dying, while tiny little pieces of it are even ending up in their flesh, soon to be eaten by unsuspecting humans. According to the FAO, around 60 million people worldwide depend on fishing and aquaculture to support their families. Many of these folks coming from disadvantaged areas in Asia. Plastics infecting this enormous chunk of the world's food supplies just won't do. So, let's get to it. How are some countries dealing with the issue of plastic waste?

One example that several places, including England, are practicing, is burning the bulk of their waste. According to i news, just last year over 40% of the UK's waste was incinerated. But unfortunately, a recent study my Zero Waste Europe found that the most innovatively engineered designs of incinerators still release toxic dioxins and other pollutants. Going back to those science lessons in middle school on conservation of matter, the stuff everything is made of, natural law says that matter cannot be created or destroyed, so even though it may seem a solution to burn waste, those atoms have to go somewhere, and unfortunately they end up in our atmosphere--in the air we breathe.

There were many other systems of recycling around the world, and the truth is that most are not exactly that effective. In fact, according to the UN report Single-Use Plastics: A roadmap for Sustainability, "Only nine percent of the plastic waste the world has ever produced has been recycled." This leads me to the ultimate mindset shift we really have to encourage in one another and fight for systemically. Industry has to stop producing plastic waste and we, the consumers, have to lower our demand for those items. Luckily, there are simple ways in the home that you can lower your usage, and save money in the process.

With the right supports we can all do this. Whether you are looking to start small and make different choices in the store, or shift hugely to buying your household items in bulk, none of us should have to do it on our own. If each family can make a few changes, even in just our belief in the idea of any item as disposable, I know we can change the course of our collective relationship with the planet. My plan is to build out this support system with consulting services, educational materials, and upcycled tools for your home using all my creative energy to get it out to you. In the meantime, check out my IG and Facebook Page: Sustain With Me, as I dive into my journey to lowering my family's impact on the earth.

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