“There is no such thing as ‘away’. When we throw something away it must go somewhere.
Recycling in the United States is in the midst of a crisis. According to the New York Times, hundreds of towns and cities across the U.S. have canceled recycling programs or limited the types of materials they accept. An example of this is the curbside recycling program in Elizabethtown, which is substantially more limited now than it used to be. The so called “Big 4”: glass jars and bottles; metal food and beverage cans; plastic bottles and jugs with necks; and corrugated cardboard are now all that we are allowed to place in our green bins. Because recycling has been a cornerstone of the environmental movement since the 1970’s, these cuts have left many people frustrated, feeling like they can no longer do their part to help save the planet. Why have the recycling rules changed?
According to an article by the Sierra Club, as much as 30 percent of the “single-stream” recyclables we used to collect were contaminated by non-recyclable materials (paper, food waste, and plastic wrap), which jam machinery and lower the value of the recyclable materials with which they are mixed. Unfortunately, whether well-meaning or not, Americans are notorious for putting anything into recycling bins, from dirty diapers to lawn furniture. Since 1992, half the plastic and much of the paper we collected has not gone to our local recycling centers. These contaminated, less valuable recyclables were instead loaded onto giant container ships and sold to China. There, the mounds of mixed paper and plastic were processed under the laxest of environmental controls. Much of it was simply dumped, washing down rivers to feed the crisis of ocean plastic pollution. Meanwhile, America's once robust capability to sort, clean, and recycle its own waste deteriorated. If we could easily bundle our mess off to China, why invest in expensive recycling technology?
About five years ago, the Chinese government started to worry about all the non-recyclable and therefore non-profitable trash they were accepting. Eventually, in January 2018, China banned the import of almost all recycling from the United States.
Now many American towns and cities are choosing to incinerate or send to the landfill all waste that cannot be easily recycled and, in our homes, we are forced to trash many items we used to think were recyclable. Hopefully we will develop technology in the near future that will allow us to collect, sort, and truly recycle many of those materials again.
All of this leaves us wondering, is anything we can do now in order to throw away less? The most sensible answer is to buy less, especially single use items packaged in plastic. But have you ever looked at all of those items that have traditionally been non-recyclable, like potato chip snack bags, toothpaste tubes, and disposable razors, and wondered, can we somehow develop technology to recycle those as well? The answer is yes, with TerraCycle. TerraCycle® is a social enterprise Eliminating the Idea of Waste®. Since 2009, TerraCycle has diverted nearly 3 billion pieces of waste, everything from Capri Sun drink pouches to cigarette butts, from landfill fodder, incinerator fuel or worse, marine pollution. Companies, such as Kraft Foods and Frito-Lay, underwrite the costs of collecting and processing many formerly non-recyclable items into new products. Christ Church is happy to announce that we will be partnering with TerraCycle in several of their collection programs. With Gillette, we will collect all brands of disposable razors and packaging: blades and razors (systems and disposable units and replaceable-blade cartridge units), rigid plastic packaging, and flexible plastic bag packaging (complete information at https://www.terracycle.com/en-US/brigades/gillette#how-it-works). Also, in collaboration with Arm & Hammer and Oxiclean, we will be collecting brand specific ARM & HAMMER™ Baking Soda pouches, ARM & HAMMER™ Power Paks Laundry Detergent pouches, OXICLEAN™ Laundry Detergent Paks pouches, OXICLEAN™ 2in1 Stain Fighter Power Paks pouches, and OXICLEAN™ White Revive Laundry Stain Remover Power Paks pouches (complete information at https://www.terracycle.com/en-US/brigades/armandhammer-oxiclean#how-it-works). Lastly, we will be collecting all brands of used coffee or tea discs from any capsule-specific coffee or tea machine including, fresh packs, K-Cups and t-discs. This does not include used tea or coffee filters, coffee grounds, electronics (coffee makers), or other coffee or tea accessories (complete information at https://cdn.shopify.com/s/files/1/0265/7139/files/Coffee_Capsules_accepted_waste_poster.pdf?11055539433179067589). This program recycles the entire coffee capsule/K-cup, there is no need to remove the used coffee/tea grounds from inside the cup or pod. Waste collected by TerraCycle is mechanically and/or manually separated into metals, organics and plastics. Metals are melted so they may be recycled. Organics (such as coffee grounds) are composted. Plastics undergo extrusion and pelletization to be molded into new plastic products such as garden planters, bike racks, picnic tables, park benches, and pet food bowls. The Gillette and Arm and Hammer programs are free but the coffee capsule/K-cup program does have an associated cost. In order to help defray that expense, we are asking for donations (place in the small coffee can near the collection bin) if you deposit coffee capsules/K-cups into the TerraCycle box at church. We welcome you to bring your coffee capsules/K-cups from home for recycling but please do not bring those items in from your work place, we will not be able to handle that volume at this time. TerraCycle offers a great many other recycling programs and we are currently on the waiting list to participate in additional product collections.
To be perfectly transparent, TerraCycle has been criticized by some who claim that manufacturing companies who partner with them do not receive any incentive to stop making non-recyclable packaging in the first place. This, some claim, makes TerraCycle’s tagline, “Eliminating the Idea of Waste,” rather suspect to environmentalists who crusade against single use packaging, especially plastic. Coffee capsules or K-cups, for example, that are collected through TerraCycle are shipped to a facility that up-cycles them into other products such as a plastic lumber. Some argue that if TerraCycle really wanted to eliminate waste, they would encourage consumers to make coffee the old fashioned way since coffee capsules or K-cups are inherently wasteful. TerraCycle contends that they are working to build a recycling infrastructure by developing technologies and generating the critical mass of specific kinds of waste needed to make recycling economically feasible. This is the kind of technology that could help us to process many of those non-recyclable materials that we used to ship to China and now must throw into the trash.
Even more intriguing is a new TerraCycle program called Loop™ (https://loopstore.com/), a never-before-seen venture to combat single-use waste. For the first time ever, consumers can receive their favorite products from trusted brands in durable, reusable, refillable packaging. By creating this circular model, TerraCycle is working toward zero-waste packaging through a “milkman model”— delivering goods in reusable containers and collecting empties to refill. This effectively closes the loop, making e-commerce shopping far more sustainable by eliminating the single use packaging that we purchase and discard over and over again. Loop works with 41 big brands at present, from Crest to Häagen-Dazs, in the U.S. and Europe, with more brands likely in 2020. For their efforts, TerraCycle was named 1 of the top 10 Change the World companies by Fortune in 2019 (https://fortune.com/change-the-world/2019/terracycle).
Living a perfectly sustainable life with zero carbon footprint is impossible. Our inability to achieve perfection in this goal, however, should not deter us from trying, in as many ways as we can, to tread more lightly on this precious Earth we inhabit. Consume less, rid your life of as much single use plastic as you can, recycle as your town or municipality allows, join in the efforts of other novel recycling opportunities such as TerraCycle through Christ Church, and look into e-purchasing through a loop model to benefit from reusable and refillable packaging with participating products. We don’t have to change the world, we just have to change ourselves. Change one habit, make one new decision, examine one daily practice to see where or how a little tweak might benefit not only you but the world. If each of us makes one change (or two or three), then together we will indeed change the world.