Originally published September 9th, 2019. Updated April 17th, 2021.
Most Americans recycle but many still prefer to avoid recycling.
For some people it takes too much effort to sort items or separate trash from recyclables.
Some areas require the separation of paper, glass, metals, etc. into separate bins or bags.
Many cities and towns have gone to “single stream” recycling. This allows people to put all recycle items into a single bin.
While this is the easiest way to recycle, some people still can’t or wont recycle.
Some areas do not have recycling programs at all. I don’t have the numbers, but I think this is becoming less common.
Some people are philosophically averse to the whole idea of recycling.
Recycling is not a new concept and has been used in agriculture for eons.
During World War II my mother told me they recycled everything, as her mother did during WWI.
An EPA fact sheet1 released in 2016 shows that 34.6% of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) was recycled or composted in 2014.
While this is up from single digits as late as 1980, it still means that almost two-thirds of our MSW is land-filled or incinerated.
This report does not address how much of our trash ends up in the environment.
It would be great if we could recycle 100% of our MSW, but even 50% seems a lofty goal.
We have seen in the news how several countries that used to accept plastic and electronics for recycling no longer do so.
In Massachusetts the only glass recycling facility recently shut down due to lack of demand. With more microbreweries using cans instead of bottles, no one needs all of that glass.
With persistently low recycling rates and increasing difficulty processing these materials, it seems that the best option is to avoid recycling.
Check out this article for a global perspective on recycling.
How to Avoid Recycling
How do we create less trash and recyclable materials in our daily lives?
And how to do this without putting much effort into it?
Even if you are an enthusiastic recycler, not all materials can be recycled. Many items that are recycled still leave waste that cannot be re-used.
Here are a few ways that you can make a difference.
How to avoid recycling at work
If my workplace is typical, I’d say most people are avoiding recycling already. But not in a good way.
I work in Cambridge, MA also know as “The Republic of Cambridge.” While the citizens of Cambridge may be good recyclers, I’m dubious of the efforts of the people who own the building I work in.
Let me note that our building is “LEED Certified”2
While the building owners have clearly labeled some barrels for trash and some for recycling, that seems to be all that they do.
Most of my colleagues can’t tell the difference between the clearly labeled recycle and trash barrels. I see trash in the recycle bin and recyclables in the trash daily.
The people I work with are highly intelligent. If the building owners made some effort at education I have no doubt that my colleagues would catch on quickly.
I see the same thing at races. Most races recycle nothing. When they do have separate barrels, most runners can’t tell the difference. Or don’t care.
A few years ago one race hired a company to provide barrels for trash, recycle and compost.
Even with someone stationed at each disposal location, people still asked questions. Others tossed their banana peels into the recycle bin and wandered off.
Much like the people I work with, the runner demographic tends to be college educated and earn above median incomes. People who should know better.
What can we do at work?
The first thing is to actually use the correct barrels to dispose of your trash. Very little effort is required to make this change. That’s not avoiding recycling, but it is common sense.
Second, bring your own utensils.
My company actually gave all employees a ceramic coffee mug several years ago, but still people use paper cups.
You can bring your own coffee mug to work. Most of us have more than we can use at home.
If you work 200 days a year and have two cups of coffee a day, that is 400 cups a year. Most of us drink more coffee than that, so our impact may be even greater.
If 500 people in my building did this, we would save 200,000 cups a year. And that’s only two cups per day.
You can bring a drinking glass to work.
Besides coffee, most of us have several glasses of water at work, or we grab a bottle of something out of the vending machine.
If 500 people switched to a re-usable glass, we could avoid recycling 200,000 cups and plastic bottles each year. Probably more than that.
Plastic utensils. Most of us use a plastic fork or spoon at least once a day at work. Some people use a plastic spoon each time they get a cup of coffee. Some people use a plastic straw or wooden stir stick.
Either way, all of these items end up in the trash after a few seconds of use.
If on average each person uses 4 plastic utensils per day, 200 days a year and 500 people switched to real silverware we could avoid recycling:
4x200x500 = 400,000 single use plastic utensils annually.
Here is the simple solution for work: bring your own drinking glass, coffee mug and eating utensils.
Individually these may seem like small changes, and they are. But they require no special effort and over time they will make a difference.
The next time you go to the grocery store look for a 400 pack of paper coffee cups, plastic cups and a box of 400 eating utensils. These are not small packages.
Things we can do at home
The vast majority of our waste is created at home. Think of all of the food packaging you throw away every day, and packaging of all kinds. How many single use items do you throw away everyday at home?
It’s difficult to reduce the amount of packaging we bring home. That’s how our food and other items are sold to us.
I for one do not want to bring home meat in a paper bag. Prices would go up if we had the butcher wrap our purchase in paper like they did in the old days. And the food probably would not stay fresh as long either.
The only way to avoid recycling here is to buy less or look for products that use less packaging.
A friend commented that his wife saves the plastic bags you get in the fruit and veggie section of the grocery store. She puts the food away and puts those plastic bags back into her re-usable shopping bags.
This got me thinking that we could avoid those bags all together by just putting the food into the shopping bags.
Some grocery stores provide hand held scanners. As you select your items you scan them, put them in your bag and avoid the store’s plastic bags.
Re-usable bags seem to be the easiest way to avoid recycling here. I recently listened to an NPR broadcast where the guest said you need to use those nylon shopping bags 20,000 times to make their carbon foot print equivalent to the foot print of those throw away bags.
But I’m talking about reducing your recycling burden. Carbon foot print is another article.
Composting If you have space in your yard, composting is easy and sanitary. You can find all kinds of information on how to compost on the internet, so I won’t go into that.
Here is a good article on how to get started with composting.
Some argue that it is better to use a commercial composting facility as they collect the methane produced by compost. If your town has a commercial composting facility or collects gas from the land fill, that’s great.
In Eastern Massachusetts, all of our trash goes to an incinerator.
Gardening Again, if you have space gardening can be fun and help you avoid recycling. If the food comes out of the ground in your back yard, there isn’t any packaging to recycle. You can use your compost to build up the soil in your garden, so you don’t have to worry about disposing of your compost.
You can even use some household items in the garden. Seedlings can be started in yogurt cups.
Re-use or Upcycling is another option. Upcycling is the process of reusing waste materials without breaking them down into their base state to create a product of higher value or quality.
Check out this interesting article on recycling versus upcycling on an industrial scale.
Glassware Most of us have more glasses and mugs than we can possibly use. If you are starting out and need these items go to a yard sale. You can pick up glasses for a five or ten cents.
We use some jelly jars for water glasses. They look fancy and then we don’t have to recycle them.
Take-out Containers Americans are eating out and ordering in more than ever. Most take-out containers end up in the trash. Most cannot be recycled or have no economic value to the recycling company.
So what to do? When we get sturdy plastic containers we use them to store left overs. They are food-grade containers so why not use them to store food?
We also use them to collect our composting materials. Compost can make your Tupperware containers groady over time. If a take out container gets groady, no big deal.
They may not last as long as Tupperware, but we get multiple uses out of them and we avoid buying more containers.
You can also tell a restaurant that you don’t need plastic cutlery and packets of ketchup with your takeout order.
Some restaurants allow you to bring your own containers and some coffee shops let you use a re-usable mug.
How do you Avoid Recycling?
So here are a few of my ideas on how to avoid recycling.
Do you recycle?
Do you have any ideas that you’d like to share?
Recycle well my Friends,