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:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 6

Last updated June 20, 2021.

Another plastic product graphic
Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay

If you’ve been following my series on the Packaging Industry, hopefully, you’ve found it informative! In my last article, I wrote about Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). Today, I’ll tell you about one type of EPR, called Take-back programs.

Take-back programs are designed to ‘take back’ discarded items that are not accepted in regular recycling streams like curbside pickup. These programs are typically separate from municipal programs. They are often hosted by manufacturers or companies, for a variety of purposes.

Purposes of Take-Back Programs

Take-back programs exist for several reasons:

        • To reduce contamination of municipal recycling efforts
        • For recycling, at least parts of the items
        • To prevent toxic materials from entering landfilled
        • Simply to draw in customers

It is often a combination of one or two of those reasons. “Some collections, like the ones for e-waste and plastic bags, are often not so much a recycling effort as an attempt to reduce contamination of municipal solid waste streams and ensure proper disposal,” wrote Chris Daly in The Future of Packaging.

Earth friendly graphic
Image by Clker-Free-Vector-Images

‘Eco-friendly’ and ‘sustainability’ are good for business

Many people want to buy from companies that ‘take back’ or recycle items. “We know that consumers are more likely to patronize companies committed to making positive social and environmental impacts,” wrote Tom Szaky, founder of TerraCycle.1 He noted that many companies have had an influx of marketing campaigns in recent years for consumers to bring back their containers for recycling, but that not all companies are actually socially responsible and transparent in the process.

Sometimes this is greenwashing! If a company cannot actually fulfill its promise of recycling or taking back items, then that is false advertising.

“In the face of increasing demand for more corporate social responsibility and environmental-friendliness, however, the authenticity of some of these recycling programs is questionable.” -Chris Daly

Types of Take-Back Programs

There are many types of take-back programs, so I am presenting the most common ones here.

Computer waste
Computer and other e-waste. Image by dokumol from Pixabay

Plastic Bags, Styrofoam, and Electronics Take-Back Programs

Many stores accept things that typically cannot be recycled, such as plastic grocery bags, styrofoam, and electronics. These programs are good for businesses because they generate foot traffic and brand affinity. This also prevents those items from going to a landfill. It also prevents them from going into your curbside bin, where they will contaminate recycling. Grocery stores, such as Publix, accept plastic bags, #4 plastic bags and Amazon Prime type shipping envelopes, toilet paper wrap, produce and bread bags, dry cleaning bags, styrofoam egg cartons, and styrofoam meat trays. Staples and Best Buy take back many electronic items for recycling. Many electronics companies, such as Samsung,2 have take-back programs of their own, through the mail or drop sites.

While it’s not clear what happens to any of those items, at least there’s a chance that some of those are actually recycled. Also, toxic materials will not leach into groundwater from landfills. In the meantime, these companies appear to be eco-friendly. They can also physically draw you into the stores. Might as well pick up some milk and eggs or printer paper, or maybe check out the new iPhones since you’re already there?

Plastic bag from Food City
Plastic bag from Food City. Photo by me
Publix

Publix states that “by inspiring customers to recycle these items, we ensure they are disposed of properly and keep them out of the environment and landfills.” It is unclear if these items are actually recycled as they do not specify what they do with the items. The corporation indicates that they are collected at their return centers and “then processed and sold to be made into other items.”3 That’s vague, but I still respected Publix for the effort.

Until I read that Publix actually claims that plastic bags are more sustainable than paper bags! In fact, the entire post is dedicated to promoting plastic over paper. I am appalled and extremely disappointed in Publix for making false claims such as “plastic bags use 71% less energy to produce than paper bags.” Among the many others, “using paper bags generates almost five times more solid waste than using plastic bags,” is similarly outrageous.4

Recycling bins at Publix. Photo by me
Amazon Prime envelopes
Amazon Prime plastic envelopes, accepted at some grocery stores for “recycling.” Note that Amazon does not take these back directly. Photo by me
A Microwave

A few years ago, I had a Hamilton Beach brand microwave that stopped working. I begrudgingly replaced it with a new microwave and immediately searched for a proper way to dispose of it but to no avail. I found out that Hamilton Beach will recycle and “properly dispose” of their products if you mail them to them at your cost.5 So I measured and weighed the microwave and looked up the shipping cost on USPS – and it would have been $41! So instead I put it in my shed and forgot about it for a while.

Last year, I called Staples to see if they accepted microwaves. They told me on the phone that yes, they do accept microwaves. So I loaded it in the car and took it to my local Staples. When I got to the service desk, I again asked if they’d recycle the microwave. They said yes. However, when I was researching for this post this week, I discovered that their site says they do not accept kitchen appliances. Now I wonder if that microwave was recycled, or if it was tossed in the trash after all. I guess I’ll never know, but I sure tried.

Brother brand printer ink cartridges.
Image by tookapic from Pixabay

Ink Cartridges, Light Bulbs, and Rechargeable Batteries Take-Back Programs

These programs are designed to keep contaminants out of landfills, as all three types of these items contain toxic materials. A few companies offer “rewards” in exchange for recycling. For example, Staples offers $2 back in rewards per recycled ink cartridge. This creates brand loyalty, as you are more likely to buy your ink there regularly if you are trying to use this rewards program. In fact, you have to – their rules state that you can earn the $2 per cartridge “if the member has spent at least $30 in ink and/or toner purchases at Staples over the previous 180 days.” This is only a good deal if you buy enough ink to keep up with that. At least these cartridges are likely recycled. Other companies, such as HP, have many ways for consumers and businesses to recycle their ink cartridges and electronics.6

Many hardware stores and home improvement centers, such as Lowe’s and The Home Depot, take back used compact fluorescent light bulbs and rechargeable batteries. Batteries Plus Bulbs will accept certain types of light bulbs and batteries, although not alkaline. For alkaline battery recycling, see my article from earlier this year.

Compact fluorescent light bulb
Compact fluorescent light bulb, image courtesy of Pixabay

Textile Recycling

The textile industry is notoriously wasteful, especially now that major retailers promote new fashion trends weekly rather than seasonally. But there are a few companies that have take-back programs. Patagonia may be the best example of this as they’ve had the program for a long time, don’t push new trends weekly, and stand by the quality of their products. Patagonia accepts all its products for recycling if the items can no longer be repaired or donated.7

Nike’s Reuse-A-Shoe product claims to take their old shoes grind them down to use in performance products and sports surfaces.8 The NorthFace and Levi’s are among others that take back some of their clothing for reuse or recycling. However, please know that clothing is so disposable in western society that second-hand clothing is overwhelming other parts of the world, creating waste problems in those areas. The solution for textiles is to buy less clothing, wear your clothing for a long time, and buy second-hand when possible.

Donated clothing stacks at a Goodwill outlet being prepared to be sent to various aftermarkets.
“A tour of the Goodwill Outlet warehouse and retail store in St. Paul, MN, in April 2019. Goodwill processes and recycles enormous amounts of material. Its outlets take in things that didn’t sell in Goodwill stores and separates them for various aftermarkets.” Photo by MPCA Photos on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Solutions

Take-back programs offer a solution for some items that are hard to dispose of, such as computers, batteries, and light bulbs. It isn’t clear if these programs result in real recycling. Sometimes the companies are not transparent about their take-back program details. The real solution is for companies to invest in a system that can make these items reusable, in a circular economy or closed-loop system. We also need to consume less in general.

In my next post, I’ll examine two types of take-back programs that have high success rates. Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

 

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 2

Last updated on September 9, 2021.

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

In my last article, I introduced the topic of packaging and the environmental crisis it has created. I left off with an explanation of greenwashing (read here about how to avoid greenwashed products), and in this article, I’m going to describe two terms that are often misused in advertising.

Remember: the answer to packaging is to reduce our reliance on it; to stop using it.

Styrofoam cup floating in water with plantlife
Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash

“Biodegradable” and “Compostable”

If only these words were the solutions to our global packaging problem! Unfortunately, they are two of the most abused terms in greenwashed advertising. Biodegradable refers to any material that decomposes in the environment. Compostable means that the material is organic matter that will break down and turn into soil. These words do not always mean what we think when it comes to sustainable packaging. In fact, if biodegradable and compostable items go into the trash and then a landfill, they do not biodegrade. Nothing in a landfill breaks down. Worse, the contents of landfills release methane gas, a major contributor to global warming.

But misleading marketing makes us believe that biodegradable plastics are better. “According to the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides, it is deceptive to market a product as biodegradable if the item does not completely decompose within one year after customary disposal, so items that are customarily disposed of in landfills cannot be marketed as ‘biodegradable in landfills.'”1 Regardless, the term is often misused.

Biodegradable plastics will only break down under the right conditions, such as in an industrial composting facility, not in a backyard composting system. But commercial composting facilities don’t all accept even certified compostable plastic products because the chemicals in the plastic hurt the final value of the compost.

Industrial Composting Facilities

There are several types of composting systems. A home compost system is mainly food and yard waste that you can set up yourself. Commercial composting refers to a municipal or city composting facility that accepts food and/or yard waste. An industrial composting facility requires precise processing conditions under a controlled biotechnological process. In order to be effective, these conditions include a certain high temperature, moisture level, aeration, pH, and carbon/nitrogen ratio.

Industrial composting facilities are not available in many places. There are about 200 in the US, serving less than 5% of the population. If there is notince

If there is a facility in your area, it still does not guarantee the items will be composted. The reality is that many facilities cannot tell the difference between compostable plastics from regular plastics other than by carefully reading the label on each item. This is not practical with the number of disposables we currently discard, so many items go to the landfill.

Examples

Let’s look at three examples of greenwashed and problematic products.

Wincup polystyrene disposable cups

I saw this single-use disposable coffee cup on the campus where I work. A colleague had purchased coffee at the cafeteria and the images of green leaves and biodegradable claims drew my interest. The company, called WinCup and based out of Stone Mountain, Georgia, claims to be a leading manufacturer of disposable polystyrene products.

First, these cups will not biodegrade unless they are put into biologically active landfills, which are far and few between. On their website, they claim that their “cups biodegrade 92% over 4 years” and “under conditions that simulate a wetter, biologically active landfill.”2 What is this type of landfill? My understanding is that it is similar to an industrial composting facility, in the facility adds moisture to assist with breakdown.

Most people toss these cups into the regular trash, which then goes to landfills. This is the case where I work (I have plans to meet with cafeteria management to come up with better solutions for food and drinkware). These cups will not break down in a landfill. Additionally, if these cups end up in the ocean, they will likely not break down and will also leach toxins. When marine life ingests those toxins, they make their way up through the food chain to us.

BASF ecovio line

BASF, a major chemical corporation, claims to “combine economic success with environmental protection and social responsibility.”3 I found some greenwashed marketing on their website about compostable plastic:

BASF website screenshot for "compostable" plastic

BASF used Ecovio film applications to make organic waste bags, fruit and vegetable bags, carrier bags, agricultural films, etc. Their claim is that the product is compostable, but the fine print indicates it is compostable “under the conditions of an industrial composting plant.”4

Screenshot from BASF's website about their compostable bags

This picture is misleading, as it shows a person putting a bag of compost into a compost bin. This gives the impression that these bags will break down in any compost collection when that is not the case. BASF’s compostable certification is the ASTM D6400, which is specifically for industrial composting facilities.5 Those are not available in most municipalities or states. If these products go into a landfill, it makes no environmental impact whatsoever. They also cause the same pollution problems as regular plastic.

A person holding 'compostable' plastic cups found at Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, New York.
‘Compostable’ plastic cups found at Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, New York. Don’t buy these! Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Molded fiber take-out packaging

molded fiber take out container

These “compostable” and “plastic alternative” molded fiber take-out containers seemed like a magnificent alternative to plastic until they were discovered to contain PFOAs (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). These chemicals, protect the fibers from becoming wet and soggy. The same compounds are in most nonstick cookware. They cause cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and immunotoxicity in children.

Though marketed as compostable, these chemicals do not disappear. They get into the soil from the compost, and potentially into whatever is grown in that soil. Worse, these chemicals make it into the waterways and eventually into our drinking water.

My family ate out of these types of containers multiple times. Of course, I had no idea the time that these contained PFOAs. Many major eateries have stopped using these.

Solution

In general, we must consume less. We must end the production and use of single-use disposable items. Most importantly, being aware of these problems is key because we can all make a difference.

In my next article about packaging, I’ll explain bioplastics, which are often advertised as biodegradable or compostable. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Additional Resources:

Article, “The bowls at Chipotle and Sweetgreen are supposed to be compostable. They contain cancer-linked ‘forever chemicals,'” by Joe Fassler, TheCounter.org, August 5, 2019. Read this excellent article for more information on molded fiber food containers.

Article, “The breakdown of biodegradable plastic, broken down,” by Sarah DeWeerdt, Anthropocene Magazine, May 7, 2019.

Article, “Will compostable packaging ever be able to solve our waste problem?” by Adele Peters, fastcompany.com, September 3, 2019.

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 1

Last updated on August 5, 2021.

Yellow excavator on mounds of waste, Indonesia
Waste pile in Indonesia. Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels

Waste. We have so much of it that we require large machinery to move it around for us. There’s so much waste that our landfills are overfilling; the ocean is polluted with plastic and toxins; and in parts of the world, people have to spend their days living and working surrounded by large amounts of waste.  This article is the first in a series about the impact of packaging and the packaging industry.

Most packaging comes from items we buy regularly. I recently purchased a bottle of Zyrtec. Almost all medicines come in plastic bottles, but I had to buy a plastic bottle of Zyrtec inside of more plastic packaging! I emailed the company to ask why and if they would consider ending the practice of overpackaging. Unfortunately, Johnson & Johnson, the owner of Zyrtec, sent a generic response: “We appreciate you reaching out to us with your concern. We always value the views and opinions of our consumers…We will make certain your feedback is shared with the appropriate management of our company.” This is the typical response I receive from companies but I keep trying nonetheless.

Zyrtec packaging. Photo by me
Zyrtec packaging surrounding the small plastic bottle of tablets. Photo by me

 

“Packaging and containers are the largest segment of municipal solid by waste by product category.” -Beth Porter, author of Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine

Packaging is Everyone’s Responsibility

I am a recycler and I encourage you to recycle. But unfortunately, recycling isn’t the answer. Globally only about 9% – 13% of plastics are actually recycled. Since recycling doesn’t work in our current systems, we have to find a better set of solutions. Less packaging is one idea.

Corporations and companies are not doing enough to prevent plastic pollution, especially through the packaging industry. They have the power to stop producing packaging with disposable plastics and the resources to create more sustainable packaging. But we consumers have power too, to convince those companies to change.

“As consumers, we don’t give ourselves enough credit for how powerful we really are…View your purchases as having a direct impact on the goods and services companies choose to make.” -Tom Szaky, TerraCycle

I recently read The Future of Packaging: From Linear to Circular by Tom Szaky and 15 packaging industry leaders. The book exposed me to more information than I knew existed about packaging and the packaging industry. Then I read other books and several articles about the packaging industry. So I decided to share what I’ve learned with you, in several posts.

Single baking potato sold in plastic packaging for microwavable "convenience". Photo by me
Single baking potato sold in plastic packaging for microwavable “convenience”. Photo by me

“And then there’s the ubiquitous plastic packaging, which envelops practically every product imaginable, from apples to eggs, foam bath to lipstick, toy cars to printer cartridges.”1

Packaging history

How did we get to today, where we have packaging for every single item? Packaging inside of packaging? So much packaging, often made from either mixed materials or unrecyclable materials, that we now have a waste crisis? How did we get here?

Packaging used to be sustainable and reusable with very little waste. Glass bottles held soft drinks, milk, medicine, etc. Consumers returned these and the companies sanitized and refilled them. During World War II citizens collected scrap metal, paper, rubber, and even cooking waste. Cities sometimes issued quotas for recycling.

Beginning in the post-war era, packaging increased to make life more “convenient” and “easier” for women running households. At the same time, the global population was growing at a higher rate than ever before – tripling between 1950 and 2010. Consumerism grew along with increased wealth and disposable income in the western world. Plastic packaging in all forms became cheaper to create and ship while increasing convenience for consumers.

Life Magazine article of August 1, 1955 about "throwaway living".
Life Magazine article of August 1, 1955

The False Notion that Plastic is More Sanitary

Plastic also became the “sanitary” way to serve and sell food, a somewhat false notion that persists even today. While plastic can prevent foods from cross-contamination and spoilage, it is not the only material that can do so. There are many options but sadly, plastic has become the standard.

DuPont advertising for cellophane wrapped produce
“Clean and fresh” advertising of DuPont cellophane to increase convenience.

“The spreading fear of a contaminated environment has spawned legions of buyers of bottled water, pasteurized egg and dairy products, and irradiated meats and seafood. Packaging can be highly misleading, however.” -Daniel Imhoff, Paper or Plastic

For a full history of plastic packaging and plastic in general, I recommend  Susan Freinkel’s Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.

Cover of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

The Current Situation

Packaging today is out of control. Despite solutions and ideas and innovations, there is far too much packaging in everything, made of all material types. “Today, the average American throws out at least three hundred pounds of packaging a year,” according to Susan Freinkel. In 2017, nearly 30% of U.S. municipal solid waste was from containers and packaging according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).2 This amounted to 80.1 million tons. The EPA estimated that about 50% of that was recycled but only 13% of plastics were recycled (but the number is most likely under 10%).

“About half of all goods are now contained, cushioned, shrink-wrapped, blister-packed, clamshelled, or otherwise encased in some kind of plastic.” -Susan Freinkel, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

Many types of packaging are not recyclable. Even the ones that are recyclable are often not recycled. One solution is to avoid purchasing as many products in packaging as possible, something I often write about. You can read my article on going plastic-free with food consumption.

The sad truth is that branding and marketing often drive packaging design, rather than environmental issues. This is beginning to change, but not at a fast enough pace to keep up with the rate of consumer packaging disposal.

“More often than not, the perceived value of being ‘green’ is trumped by bottom-line costs.” -Daniel Imhoff, Paper or Plastic

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is advertising or promotions in which green marketing is deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims, and policies are environmentally friendly when they are not. Let’s call this what it is: this is false advertising. Here’s a video with excellent explanations:

I encourage you to read up on greenwashing because it’s everywhere!  Many companies participate in this practice. Remember the Volkswagen scandal? Volkswagen intentionally advertised low emissions vehicles but they actually equipped those vehicles with software that cheated emissions testing. Those vehicles emitted as much as 40 times the allowed amount of pollutants. While that’s an extreme example, this happens all of the time and it can be so subtle that you aren’t aware of it.

Please see my list on how to avoid greenwashing.

Consumers expect companies to dedicate themselves to making a positive social or environmental impact…they want to be able to trust them to prioritize ethics. – KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, founder and CEO of Sustainable Life Media, “Consumers Care,” The Future of Packaging

In my next article, I’ll detail some of these greenwashing terms, such as “biodegradable,” “compostable,” and “bioplastics”.

Thank you for reading! Please watch for future parts of this series by subscribing.

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

 

Additional resource:

Article, “The cost of plastic packaging,” by Alexander H. Tullo, Chemical & Engineering News, October 17, 2016.

Footnotes: