Small municipalities across America often don’t have recycling programs.
Those of us who live in big cities with robust, single stream operations and curbside pickup are spoiled. It’s hard for us to imagine a world where the big blue (or green) truck doesn’t come by every other Wednesday to fetch our plastics and paper.
It’s even more unfathomable to watch aluminum cans get tossed in the garbage with abandon.
But it happens, because a lot of people have no other choice but to throw recyclables away along with all their other trash.
But fear not, oh, Reductionist Residents of Small, Non-Recycling Towns!
If you want to recycle but don’t have a local government program that makes it possible, you DO have options.
Okay, so there's not a ton. But there are a few.
Unfortunately, the recycling biz is taking a major hit. This Wall Street Journal article explains it all, with gut-twisting clarity. To summarize, recycling as a business venture is proving not to be economically advantageous, and we all know that in ‘Merica, when Big Business doesn’t make a killing off a product or service, they simply stop offering it.
What's more, other countries like China are sick and tired of taking America’s trash.
Wait, what? China takes America’s trash?
By the boat load.
For years we’ve had a little exchange program going with them; America pays a fee to have them make our garbage disappear. But hearts and minds have changed recently. China doesn’t want to be The World’s Dumping Ground anymore, so they’re not as willing to accept our moldy banana peels. Go figure.
Not to mention, threats of heightened tariffs that have led to our current trade war have inspired the Chinese to simply stop accepting shipments altogether. So perhaps our old TVs are floating around on a barge in the ocean somewhere with no place to go.
Like the famous Garbage Barge story of 1987 that prompted a new era of recycling, and the ensuing hilarious yet heartbreaking children’s book that was written about the issue by author Jonah Winter.
Single stream recycling operations—meaning programs that let you mix your plastics with your glass and paper and metal—have a problem. While more people are recycling because it’s easier to do so than ever before, it’s actually causing a lot more contamination, rendering the stuff we deposit entirely un-recyclable. No matter how honorable our intentions are.
Talk about a flaw in the system.
Despite all that, there are still things you can do to be a reduce your waste impact.
1. WIPE LIKE A REDUCTIONIST!
If recycling just isn’t possible in your world, the single most powerful and heroic thing you can do to help the world’s garbage crisis is to use your power as a consumer.
Buy recycled products.
The most effective product to do that with right now is to switch to buying recycled toilet paper.
Then start buying recycled printer paper instead of the regular stuff.
And recycled paper towels.
Large quantity stuff. Get it?
If demand for recycled products like these increases, Industry responds by giving us more of what we, powerful consumers, want.
When manufacturers are called upon to generate more goods made of certain things (e.g., acai berries. At some point, someone decided we need more acai berries, and now that stuff is in everything!), isn’t it amazing how they magically come up with streamlined methods for getting those materials more easily?
The same will happen with recycled materials, if only we demand they make more products out of them, and that they make those products more widely available and more cost-effective.
If we demand recycled goods, Big Business—and even government—will work to make it so. They’ll make getting stuff recycled more straightforward, and they’ll figure out ways to make it profitable for themselves again.
Which means that perhaps, in the future, for us regular people, recycling won’t be such a pain in the ass.
2. SELL YOUR ALUMINUM CANS TO SCRAP METAL YARDS
Scrap metal yards still take—you guessed it—scrap metal. Most are open to the public and gladly buy your metals for a modest sum.
This includes everything from wires to fencing to aluminum cans.
And admit it, whether you live in rural America or if you’re an urbanite, you’re chugging La Croix like it’s going out of style.
I got my kids into collecting aluminum cans as part of our Litter Squad operation—a local, kid-friendly trash pickup group we do every once in a while. It all started with a couple of cans we found on our block.
After a big wind storm one recycling day, everyone on my street had their bins overturned and the contents were strewn about. Loose paper, flattened cardboard, and plastic containers were everywhere.
We noticed that our neighbors, a house full of bearded dudes who have a bunch of their bearded buddies over every Tuesday to play Dungeons & Dragons, had a lot of cans pouring out of their recycling bins.
Turned out those bearded dudes were crushing some serious ginger ale every Tuesday. So we asked them if they’d save their cans for us, and they were happy to help. A few weeks in, our collection had ballooned.
So I called a scrapyard in Pittsburgh, and the nice man on the phone told me they pay 35 cents a pound for aluminum cans. Soon after, I took the kids to there to cash in on their take.
Eight friggin’ dollars later they were treating themselves to fro-yo! How’s that for an incentive?!
If you choose to go this route, make sure you have some space outside or in a garage to store all those stinky cans til it’s time to recycle them. And if you get really serious, invest in a can crusher or a heavy pair of boots to smash them so they take up less room.
For my friends in Westmoreland County, PA, check out Daniels & Miller, Inc. on North Hamilton Avenue. They buy aluminum cans and more.
Washington County peeps, visit Brookman Iron & Metals on Race Street.
No matter where you live, Google “scrap metal yard” and type in your ZIP code, and a listing of places you can drop off your metals will come up. Wherever you chose, give ‘em a call first. They tend to have weird hours for some reason.
3. THINK OUTSIDE THE CARDBOARD BOX, WITH PAPER
Not everyone has a paper recycling plant in their backyard. But if you think outside the box, you can solve the problem of too much paper waste.
4. BATTERIES, PRINTER INK & CELL PHONES, OH MY!
Stores like Target, Walmart and Home Depot often have recycling bins for all kinds of materials, from those mentioned above to others, like plastic bottles, MP3 players and even children’s car seats. It’ll take some deeper digging for The Reductionist to find out what actually happens to all that stuff that gets recycled at those stores, but let’s hope for now it’s being disposed of properly.
5. BE THE SQUEAKY WHEEL
I’d be neglectful if I didn’t suggest that you write your local congressperson about your frustrations. Believe it or not, your voice really does make a difference, especially during election years.
Send a friendly note to your town’s mayor, or your house representative, or to any number of public works officials. Introduce yourself. Make sure they know you’re a constituent and that you vote.
Explain why the environment and our growing garbage crisis concerns you. Remind them that—despite all its warts—municipal recycling really can boost the economy of a downturned region. It can save on the cost of tonnage delivered to the landfill. That stuff costs money, you know.
And just think of all the jobs a recycling plant could create in your town. All the drivers they’d need to hire if only they initiated a curbside pickup program.
Your inquiry could be a foot in the door to a larger—albeit more difficult—conversation that communities really need to start having. About waste and landfill space and over-consumption.
Beyond sending letters to politicians, send emails to companies. Tell them how much you love that recycled toilet paper The Reductionist told you to buy, even though you were skeptical about using it at first.
Tell your local grocer you love their green peppers but you really wish they would stop wrapping them in individual sheaths of plastic. That we could do without the bed of Styrofoam under our tomatoes.
Write reviews on Amazon and wherever else you purchase from when they ask you for packaging feedback. “Why do I need one napkin ring to be wrapped inside a box within a box within a box?” you might type, as I once did having received a lovely, miniscule wedding gift. (I’ll tell you why we registered for single napkin rings in another post someday!)
When you're ready, and when the opportunity strikes, you'll notice there are lots more ways to recycle. Companies are making playground flooring out of old sneakers nowadays. Composting your vegetable and fruit scraps back into healthy soil is about as pure as you can get when it comes to recycling. I know I'm overlooking others.
But I think you get the point. There are ways around this pesky recycling problem. We’re not powerless. As consumers in America in 2018, we actually possess TONS of control.
We just have to wield it wisely.
I'm Janeen; writer, mother, wife, and full-time, radical Reductionist. I share stupid-easy tips on how to save money while reducing your impact on the environment, & I'm committed to helping others live a life of simple sustainability.
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