Book Review: Can I Recycle This? A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single-Use Plastics

Can I Recycle This? book cover

I recently read this book and thought it was worth reviewing. Serving as a guidebook to recycling better, this publication is so much more than that! It was visually appealing, as it is illustrated with colorful diagrams and visuals to enhance your understanding of the subject matter.

The author, Jennie Romer, is an attorney and sustainability expert. She has more than a decade of experience fighting for effective legislation on single-use plastics and waste reduction.1 Romer currently serves as a legal associate for the Surfrider Foundation’s Plastic Pollution Initiative “where she leads Surfrider’s policy efforts and litigation to reduce plastic pollution at local, state and national levels.”2 She created the Surfrider Foundation’s Plastic Bag Law Activist Toolkit3 and founded the website PlasticBagLaws.org.4 The New Yorker called her “the country’s leading expert in plastic-bag law.”5

“The truth is – and you knew this was coming – that recycling alone won’t save us or the planet.” -Jennie Romer

Illustration of plastic water bottles.
Image by LillyCantabile from Pixabay

Purpose of the Book

Romer wrote that people ask her all the time, “Can I Recycle This?” and that was part of the impetus for the book. But the answers are never simple. Laws in different municipalities and recycling material profitability vary greatly. Recycling collection does not translate directly to actual recycling. With her background in law and sustainability, she was able to put together this guide that offers recycling advice, waste management systems and processes, and briefs histories of how these systems came to be.

In her introduction, she echoed my thoughts from my Packaging Series on packaging and manufacturer responsibility. “Recycling is only effective if the materials can be sold for a profit, and the markets for what is profitable fluctuates. Sadly, a lot of our carefully separated and washed plastics end up getting shipped to developing countries and contributing to climate change. And that’s where policy and activism come in: The ultimate goal is to adopt sensible and effective policies to reduce single-use plastic and other packaging, and hold producers responsible for making better packaging and paying for the cost of recycling and waste disposal (and cleanup).6 Romer also viewed this book as a contribution to that movement.

Concise Overview of Waste Management

The first section of the book covered a concise overview of the recycling system and other waste management methods. Romer explained these complex systems well but with brevity. Topics included defining recycling and what recyclable means, the types of plastic resins (numbers on plastics), global plastic production, and how resources are extracted and produced. The book provided an overview of how single-stream recycling and other types of recycling systems work, sorting at Material Recovery Facilities, and the end markets for recycled materials. Additionally, she addressed “biodegradable” and “compostable” plastics, incineration, and how modern landfills operate. There is so much to learn, and I found this section fascinating!

Guide to Recycling

In this core section, the author covered the recyclability of specific items, from straws to eyeglasses to disposable coffee cups. This section used a color-coding system both in the table of contents and on the edges of the pages to make it easy for the reader to quickly assess recyclability.

The Toll of Our Waste

Romer also covered the toll that our waste takes on air and water pollution, wildlife, and human health. She wrote about environmental justice regarding communities adjacent or near incineration facilities, landfills, or chemical plants. The book detailed China’s National Sword Policy and how that has changed our recycling markets globally. She also included the human health and pollution ramifications of shipping our waste internationally.

People sorting recycling in standing filthy water in Bangladesh.
Image by Mumtahina Rahman from Pixabay

Personal & Policy Solutions

There are many solutions to avoid buying single-use disposable plastics, and Romer offered many ideas. She detailed greenwashing in advertising and offered advice on how to avoid those products. Most importantly, she explained how to have a voice within policy and regulations, particularly in regards to single-use disposable plastics. She defined Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and explored The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act (BFFPPA).7 “The bill is a road map for how to address the plastic pollution problem in the U.S. and was developed by legislators in consultation with environmental groups and other experts,” she wrote. “The legislation looks at virtually the entire life cycle of plastics, from its creation to manufacturing and disposal.”

Inspiring

It can be hard to convey the importance of recycling and environmental responsibility. I found this book inspired me to keep the momentum going on fighting single-use disposal products, preventing climate change, and protecting human and animal life. This is our planet, and we need to protect ourselves from the catastrophes we are creating. We can all be the change. Romer hopes so too: “I hope that this book inspires you to become involved with plastics reduction and recycling.” I wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone wishing to learn more about recycling and the related issues.

Ask for a copy of this book at your local library! Thank you for reading. Please share and subscribe.

Chalkboard drawing with the word "Together" and people figures in different colors.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Footnotes:

Earth Day Emergency

Illustration of a woman pregnant with Earth, Mother Nature
Image by Pandanna Imagen from Pixabay

Happy Earth Day!

Each year on April 22, we celebrate Earth Day. As the Earth Day organization website notes, “Today, Earth Day is widely recognized as the largest secular observance in the world, marked by more than a billion people every year as a day of action to change human behavior and create global, national and local policy changes.”It’s great that we have this day to acknowledge our challenges.

But as I and that organization always say, Earth Day needs to be every day.

"Earth Day EveryDay" illustrated in soil colored letters on green flower background.
Photo by Amy Shamblen on Unsplash

We are in near peril now. If you really look at the worldwide problems coming from climate change, everything is changing and causing drastic consequences to humans and wildlife. The Earth Day website acknowledges the frustration of many:

“As the awareness of our climate crisis grows, so does civil society mobilization, which is reaching a fever pitch across the globe today. Disillusioned by the low level of ambition following the adoption of the Paris Agreement in 2015 and frustrated with international environmental lethargy, citizens of the world are rising up to demand far greater action for our planet and its people.”

Photo of globe wrapped in plastic film and on fire.
Photo by ArtHouse Studio from Pexels

If COVID-19 has taught me anything, it’s that people are reactive to the problems in their direct line of sight and apathetic to the problems in their periphery. But we have to do better. We can’t stay oblivious to these problems, because we will perish.

We need to do more, every day.

‘Save the Planet’ and ‘Protect the Earth’ are wonderful slogans, but we are way past slogans. We need action. We need to change our daily behaviors. And we have a limited amount of time to make changes before it’s too late.

We are destroying our own habitat.

Graphic showing evolution of humans, but the most recent human is obese and using a bat to beat up the Earth.
Image by David MAITRE from Pixabay

We are not just destroying the habitats of at-risk species half a world away, we are destroying the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the land we farm. We are destroying our own habitat! The Earth is our home but if we don’t take drastic action the irreversible results of our destructive behavior will lead to our extinction. Nature will heal itself and the Earth will go on without us.

Earth Day is Now an Emergency

“One study estimates it would take 5 Earths to support the human population if everyone’s consumption patterns were similar to the average American.”

Sea turtle swimming in the ocean.
Photo by Jong Marshes on Unsplash

We have a limited amount of time to turn it around. I encourage you to read up on the issues, watch documentaries and follow or join organizations dedicated to changing human actions so that you can learn all you can.

Make changes in your own life and reduce overconsumption where you can. If you’re able to install solar panels, new windows in your home, or purchase an electric car, I encourage you! Many of those larger changes are sometimes cost-prohibitive, so do what you can. We need to pressure companies and the government to normalize renewable energy items. This will make them more accessible and attainable. If we can greatly reduce our overall consumption levels, that will have a huge effect and positively alter the future. And maybe we can save ourselves.

Thank you for reading, and please subscribe and share!

 

“Climate change is the single greatest threat to a sustainable future but, at the same time, addressing the climate challenge presents a golden opportunity to promote prosperity, security and a brighter future for all.” -Ban Ki-Moon, Secretary General, United Nations

 

Footnotes:

Composting Made Easy

Mixed compost in my own bin.

Composting should be part of everyday life for most of us. It’s one of the best things you can do for the environment. You don’t have to be a gardener or live rurally to compost your own food and yard waste. It can seem difficult, but I want to tell you how easy it actually is!

In some parts of the world, including parts of the U.S., composting is part of regular municipal waste management. For example, San Francisco implemented a citywide residential and commercial curbside collection program that includes the separate collection of recyclables, compostable materials, and trash. This means every resident and business has three separate collection bins.

But many of us don’t live in a city or even a state that prioritizes waste management, much less composting. I’m going to explain how you can easily compost on your own, regardless of where you live. Let me begin by explaining why we should all be composting in the first place.

Landfill Reduction

Composting reduces how much we are putting in landfills. Between twenty and forty percent of our landfill contents are organic waste, depending on which study you read. So even the lower 20% number represents one-fifth of our waste which could be eliminated by composting!

Consider the amount of food waste and yard waste (including leaves) we dispose of in the United States. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), whom I consider to have a more conservative appraisal, the U.S. disposed of an estimated 35.4 million tons of yard waste, leaves, and brush in 2018, which is 12.1% of total municipal solid waste. They also estimated that the U.S. generated 63.1 million tons of food waste in 2018, or 21.6% of total municipal solid waste. If we calculate these numbers together, 34.2% of 98.5 million tons, that’s more than 3.3 million tons of waste we could avoid putting in landfills…without too much effort.

Greenhouse Gas Reduction

“Landfills are not meant to encourage decomposition.”4

We know that food and yard waste doesn’t break down in landfills. See infographic:

Infographic
Infographic by Marie Cullis

“By reducing the amount of food scraps sent to a landfill, you are helping to reduce methane gas emissions. Food waste in landfills is packed in with nonorganic waste and lacks the proper space, temperature, and moisture to degrade. The waste will never break down.”

Worse, oxygen-deprived organic matter releases methane into the atmosphere, which is a harmful greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming and climate change. This process is called anaerobic decomposition.  Methane is 28 to 36 times more effective than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in the atmosphere over the course of a century. “Although most modern landfills have methane capture systems, these do not capture all of the gas.”

“Landfills are the third-largest source of human-generated methane emissions in the United States.”

How to Compost

Collect waste!

This includes food scraps and food waste, yard trimmings, leaves, and tea and coffee grounds. It can include paper and cardboard if it is not plastic coated or full of toxic inks. You can include sawdust, hair from hairbrushes, dryer lint if your clothes are made from natural fabrics, used silk dental floss, wooden toothpicks, and cut flowers that have wilted. Remove produce stickers (they are made of plastic) and do not include bioplastics because most of those are only made for industrial composting, not home composting (and if they are home compostable, the package will say exactly that).

Generally, you’ll want to exclude animal products such as scraps and bones, but you should compost eggshells. We are largely vegetarian, so the limited animal waste we have either goes in the dog’s dinner (appropriate parts such as fish or chicken skin, fat, or bacon renderings) or to my mother’s pigs (bones after boiling off for broth and such) who can eat anything. There are exhaustive lists of types of waste you can and should not compost, as well as comprehensive articles on advanced composting. I’ve listed a few of these under Additional Resources below.

I keep an old plastic container (one I stopped using several years ago after learning about the hazards of storing food in plastic) on my kitchen counter next to the sink. You can use a metal pail or buy a prettier compost container if you so desire (sometimes called compost pails or crocks). Or you may want a covered one if you are not able to make regular trips to the outdoor compost bin. But even a large jar or bowl will work. You do not need “compostable” scrap bags, they are a waste of money and are made of plastic. Just wash out your container regularly.

Stainless steel compost countertop bin or crock
Stainless steel compost countertop bin or crock. Photo from amazon.com

Deposit Waste into an Outdoor Compost Bin

If you have an outdoor area, you can build or buy a simple compost bin. There are many DIY instructions on videos on how to do this, and there are also many options for purchasing. I suggest reading up on the various types of bins and their reviews to find the right one for you. Our compost bin is a plastic Rubbermaid compost bin that my mother-in-law handed down to us. Though not the type we’d buy today, it’s very functional and does the job. We had to add some “security” around it to keep out critters. At the beginning of every spring, we use the side hatch to remove the bottom layer of rich compost to incorporate into the garden boxes.

My Rubbermaid compost bin with fencing around it.
Our Rubbermaid compost bin with small fencing around it.

My Rubbermaid compost bin from an angle.

Composting Indoors/Apartment Options

Ask permission (if you live on a managed property): Request to place a small compost tumbler on your patio or outdoor area.

Electric composters: These machines “grind and heat your organic refuse into a dark, dry fertilizer.”

Worm composting: This practice uses earthworms that eat food scraps and digest the waste, breaking it down into a nutrient-rich compost called vermicompost. There are lots of resources online for worm composting and I’ve included a couple below under Additional Resources.

“Compost does not smell bad. The reason your trash stinks is because organic and non-organic materials are mixed. Just like in the landfill, the organic matter can’t break down, so it lets off really stinky odors.” -Kathryn Kellogg

Compost Services

Last, there are private collection services. If you are able and willing to include this in your budget, you’ll have the easiest and most convenient method of compost while doing a good thing for the Earth. A quick internet search can locate the compost services in your area. Litterless.com also offers a state-by-state listing of where you can compost.

Example of an outdoor open compost bin with many colorful food scraps.
Example of an outdoor open compost bin. Photo by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

Compost care

Compost needs three main components: oxygen, heat, and moisture. These allow for biological activity, meaning worms and insects, which is what breaks everything down. I suggest covering the compost bin (if it didn’t come with a cover) but allowing it to stay moist. Most compost bins have air holes. Between moisture from rain and food scraps, this is usually not an issue. You can add water if needed, but only a little. Stir or turn your compost every few weeks to allow for aeration between the layers.

It’s really that simple unless you want to get super scientific about it and try to achieve a certain compost quality, which is cool! But it can just be an easy way to lovingly dispose of food scraps and other organic waste.

Compost is Great for Gardening

Compost is the ultimate and most natural fertilizer for a home or urban garden. I have several garden boxes like the one pictured below, using a mixture of compost, vermiculite, and peat moss. Growing your own food reduces reliance on large agricultural farms that use heavy pesticides, fertilizers, and genetic modification.

Garden box using compost as soil.
My garden box, using compost as soil.
Lettuce I grew in the garden box with compost.
Resulting lettuce crops from the same garden box. This was the freshest lettuce I’ve ever had and of course, it was plastic-free.

If you have no desire to garden, you can give your compost away to a friend who does.

Rotting or composting fruit and vegetable waste
Image by Ben Kerckx from Pixabay

Or Do Nothing with It

You can also compost and do absolutely nothing with it! The important part is reducing what is going in the landfill where nothing decomposes, which in turn reduces greenhouse gases. Compost makes the world a better place! Thanks for reading, and please subscribe.

All photos by me unless otherwise noted.

 

Additional Resources:

Article, “A more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, methane emissions will leap as Earth warms,” Princeton University, ScienceDaily, March 27, 2014.

Guide, “Composting,” Earth Easy, accessed March 14, 2021.

Article, “10 Pro Composting Tips from Expert Gardeners,” Earth Easy, August 6, 2019.

Guide, “Composting At Home,” Environmental Protection Agency, accessed March 18, 2021.

Article, “How to Make Compost at Home?” The University of Maryland Extension, accessed March 18, 2021.

Guide, “How to Create and Maintain an Indoor Worm Composting Bin,” Environmental Protection Agency, accessed March 18, 2021.

Article, “Slimy pets to eat your garbage and entertain your kids,” by Colin Beavan,

How to Compost in an Apartment,” Earth Easy, March 8, 2019

Article, “You Should Be Composting in Your Apartment. Here’s How,” Mother Jones, December 31, 2019. Features how-to’s on worm composting.

Footnotes:

The Endangered Species Act is now Endangered

Photo of a leopard.Photo by Patrick Shields on Pixabay

I don’t like to write about topics related to politics, especially in our current divisive and eruptive political environment. However, sometimes politics cross the line and challenges important and vital environmental protections. This week, the Trump administration announced that it was going to essentially reduce the strength of the Endangered Species Act of 1973.

Before I get on my soapbox, please realize that there are many species that would be extinct today if not for the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This includes the bald eagle, the national symbol of the United States. They were placed under protection through the ESA in the 1970s when there were only 400 pairs remaining. They were removed from the list in the 2000s because their population increased to 20,000 pairs. It took almost 40 years of educating people, hunters, farmers, as well as reducing the use of toxic chemicals for agriculture which inevitably makes their way into the food chain. This success story alone should be all we need to keep the ESA held sacred.

They’re moving fast on this as well – the new changes are expected to take place next month. Not many government changes go into effect that fast.

Black and white photo of a bald eagle.
Photo by Cristofer Jeschke on Unsplash

Including Economics in Assessment

The New York Times article explained, “the new rules would make it easier to remove a species from the endangered list and weaken protections for threatened species, the classification one step below endangered.” The ESA previously did not allow for economic assessments when determining if a species deserves protection. “For instance, estimating lost revenue from a prohibition on logging in a critical habitat” would become part of the equation. This is dangerous because in government the short-term costs often outweigh the long-term benefits. This type of thinking could cause many species to become extinct.

“Over all, the revised rules appear very likely to clear the way for new mining, oil and gas drilling, and development in areas where protected species live.” – NY Times

I can’t agree more! I champion this statement because it is exactly what’s going on.

According to the article, Erik Milito, a vice president at the American Petroleum Institute, a trade group representing the oil and gas industry, praised the revisions to the ESA. Of course he did.

We have to put nature first and make nature more important than profit and consumption.

Excluding Climate Change as a factor

While economic assessments will now be considered, revisions will go a step further by REMOVING the impact of climate change when evaluating how to best protect species. This is despite that study after study, CITES, the IUCN, and the United Nations have all determined that climate change is one of the critical challenges in protecting wildlife. A recent study in part from the UN declared that approximately one million species are at risk of extinction and that global warming is one of the biggest factors in wildlife decline and endangerment.

“The new rules also give the government significant discretion in deciding what is meant by the term ‘foreseeable future.’ That’s a semantic change with far-reaching implications because it enables regulators to disregard the effects of extreme heat, drought, rising sea levels and other consequences of climate change that may occur several decades from now.” – NY Times

Photo of rhinoceros mother and calf in South Africa.
Photo by Ken Goulding on Unsplash

Politicians Claim Revisions are for “Modernization” and “Transparency”

Interior Secretary David Bernhardt said the changes would modernize the ESA and make it more transparent, which is just BS. “Mr. Bernhardt, a former oil and gas lobbyist, wrote that the act places an ‘unnecessary regulatory burden’ on companies.” He argued in 2018 that the ESA elevates protections for threatened species to the same level as those given to endangered species and that “we need creative, incentive-based conservation, but that becomes impossible with the current blurring of the lines between the two distinctions.”

The distinctions were created because of scientific foresight. If a particular species is declared “threatened” the ESA allows protections to be put in to place to prevent that species from becoming endangered. We cannot wait for species to become endangered before we do something about it.

Bernhardt also wants species to stay on the list for less time. The reason species stay listed as threatened or endangered is because they are not recovering in population, habitat, and health. The argument that the law is not reasonable because species are rarely removed from the list, is flawed. “Since the law was passed, more than 1,650 have been listed as threatened or endangered, while just 47 have been delisted because their populations rebounded.” That’s not because the standards have gone up! That’s because species are continually threatened and assaulted by a variety of human activities. Further, it seems that no one is looking at the numbers of species that went extinct while waiting to get on to the ESA’s list.

Photo of a sea turtle.
Image by Андрей Корман from Pixabay

This Is Not the First Time the ESA Has Been Attacked

Republicans have been working on relaxing and reducing this bill for several years, if not longer. I’m sharing a video of wildlife biologist and conservationist Jeff Corwin (@wildcorwin) testifying at a hearing of the House Natural Resources Committee in July 2017:

“Historically, the [Endangered Species Act] was not politically-based. Remember, it was produced in an administration that had tremendous challenges. And if it wasn’t for Richard Nixon, and his policies, we would not have bald eagles today.” – Jeff Corwin

Black and white photo of an African elephant and calf.
Image by Christine Sponchia from Pixabay

“We celebrate the value of natural resources, going back to Teddy Roosevelt, John Muir, through the work of Rachel Carson. And today, we as Americans, are unique and we have a such a splendid tableau of valuable species and landscapes. And it can only stay through wise, pragmatic, common-sense management, and I believe that the ESA is a big partner in that.” -Jeff Corwin

In response to this news, Corwin denounced the changes on social media:

“When we allow our political persuasions to destroy the very fabric of our country‘s wild legacy, then it will be our children that pay the ultimate price.”

Update (8/27/2019): I found this video of an interview with Jeff Corwin from the same date that I originally published this post:

You Can Help!

Everyone who knows even just a little about the Endangered Species Act knows that it has been overwhelmingly successful. So we have to fight this! Besides voting, here is a petition you can sign to help stop this! It will go to your state’s representative (it will ask you to donate but you are not required). I’m going to call my representative in the morning. We can be the change!

As always, thank you for reading, and please subscribe!