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  • Writer's pictureKaitlynaMac

don't waste your time with waste

Plastic. The convenient menace that's been a hot-button topic on the tips of everyone's tongues and pens recently. Plastic is everywhere; in the oceans, in the land, in our homes, and even in our bodies. It's become such a problem that governments and people are scrambling to find the solution for this ever-growing problem. There's been a lot of finger pointing, banning, and tongue wagging, but little real progress. Everyone agrees that the plastic crisis needs to be addressed, but few agree on what the best course of action is. One of the most obvious solutions is recycling. People can recycle anything made of plastic, paper, glass, or metal, right? I don't have to feel guilty about buying that bottle of water at the convenience store when I was thirsty because I can recycle it when I get home. Duh. Problem solved. People just need to recycle more.

What If I told you that it's not that simple? What if I told you that the bottle I bought from the convenience store will most likely end up at the dump anyway? Or worse, it will end up in some river and be carried out to the ocean where it will be swallowed by a whale who will eventually die, wash up on the beach, be dissected by a biologist, who will then throw the bottle back into the recycling bin, only for the process to begin anew. Wash, rinse, repeat, recycle. The truth is, that at least in the US, "recycling" plastic is just as bad, or worse than throwing it in the trash. Why is this the case? Let's take a look at how our recycling is processed and the numbers driving the machine.

I've decided to focus on the US because they are the #1 garbage producer in the world.

Not that kind of garbage, I'm talking about the good-for-nothing stuff that we actually strive to get rid of ¬_¬ .

The US produces a significant amount of the world's trash relative to its population; "the US represents just 4% of the world’s population, but it produces 12% of global municipal solid waste" (Holden 2019). Not only that, but they are terrible at recycling; only about 35% of the waste that the country produces is recycled, and only about 13% of that recycled waste is plastic. Supposedly, the US has some of the best recycling facilities in the developed world, so why is it failing so hard at waste management? One of the causes is that, generally, Americans don't care enough about the environment to adequately manage their plastic use and disposal. The government has blocked bans on single use plastics, and refused to sign on to a global agreement to limit the amount of trash sent to developing countries. The other reason is that what can and cannot be recycled is surprisingly complicated, and many people are ignorant of the rules. Most of the stuff that we throw in the blue bin is actually too contaminated to be recycled, so in the end it goes to the dump. How can we recycle better?

We all know that plastic, glass, paper, and metal are all recyclable, right? WRONG, and some materials are more recyclable than others. Take Aluminum for example: this material is 100% recyclable, and doesn't lose any quality when it's processed to be used for something else. Plastic on the other hand can only be recycled 7-9 times before it degrades so much that it's useless. Still better to recycle than tossing it in the trash though, right? HMMMMMM. Even though Aluminum is easily recycled, the recycling rate of all aluminum goods for 2015 was only 36.4%. 2.4million tons of aluminum still ended up in landfills. Plastic is even worse. You look at the little numbers in the recycling symbol and think it means that it's all good, so you huck it into the blue bin and dust your hands off, smiling because you've just assuaged some of your consumerist guilt. Well those numbers mean something; not all plastic is the same: numbers 1 (PET or PETE) and 2 (HDPE) are generally accepted everywhere as recyclables, but whether numbers 3,4,5,6, or 7 are recyclable vary from state to state. Heck, glass, which is considered highly recyclable, wasn't accepted for curbside recycling in the city where I used to live (in Canada).

A lot of our plastic doesn't even get processed in our own countries. We used to send most of it to China, who accepted 9million tonnes of plastic waste in 2012 alone, but it eventually became too much for them to handle and they stopped accepting plastic waste in 2018. All that plastic has to go somewhere though... so countries like the US, Canada, Belgium, the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, and France started sending it to Southeast Asia instead, much to those countries' dismay. The waste is often labeled as "recycling", but most of it is contaminated with god-only-knows-what. Some countries are pushing back by sending the stinkin' containers back to where they came from. Earlier this year, the Philippines shipped 69 containers of mislabeled trash back to Canada after 5 years of disputes. Unfortunately, not all countries can fight back, and they end up either burning the waste or dumping it into unregulated landfills. The result of improper disposal being the release of toxic fumes as the waste slowly decays, and elevated levels of heavy metals seeping into groundwater. In 2018, the US reportedly exported 1.07million tonnes of waste to Asian countries, most of whom have worse processing and recycling capabilities than the US. Something they do have that the US doesn't is loose waste management standards... so you know that most of that garbage is just going to end up poisoning people, animals, and the Earth. For the sake of what? Convenience? Look at these sad ass pictures for a hot sec.

What can we do? Even if you follow all the rules, use the right bins, use the right bags, recycle stuff that your town or city can process... there's still no guarantee it'll get recycled. Your stuff has to be squeaky clean, separated, and otherwise uncontaminated. That little paper box your cheese sandwich came in? Forget recycling it, it's too greasy! A recycling plant in Corner Brook, Newfoundland and Labrador--which I know is in Canada, sue me--is suffering from a high turnover rate of its staff because of how nasty the job is. People are chucking dirty diapers and unwashed food containers into their blue bags, which then attract rats who die and rot inside. People do sort through the bags to try to reduce contamination, and recycle as much as possible, but " takes only one or two contaminated bags in a load to cross-contaminate the sorting line" (Hillier 2019). Let's face it, as much as we'd like to believe we can, it's impossible for everyone to recycle perfectly. Even if you do, your recyclables might be sent to a developing country where they don't have the necessary facilities to process your waste, so they'll bury it in landfill or burn it, effectively poisoning everything in the vicinity.

Feeling bad yet? I know I am. I'm a kindergarten teacher and I've been teaching my students about recycling for years. I thought I was doing good by brainwashing these tiny humans into becoming environmentalists. But now I realize that recycling doesn't do much of anything. The reality is that our plastic use outpaces our processing abilities. Which means that there's only really one viable solution to our current plastic crisis...

Stop using plastic.

It's friggen hard, I know. They wrap single oranges and apples in Styrofoam and Saran Wrap for goodness' sake. They already have a container. It's called a peel! Collectively, we need to stop using single use plastics, and we need to demand that our governments enact legislation that prohibits its production. Many moons ago, you'd get your milk in a glass jar from the milkman, who would take it back when it was empty, wash it, refill it, and give it back to you. No cartons, no jugs, no cans. I know that they have those stores now where everything is in bulk form and you have to bring your own containers etc. But those stores are usually expensive and hard to find. What we need is affordability, accessibility and convenience for everyone to get on board, but companies aren't going to provide it unless we push for it. People have been relying on recycling for too long. I wrote this... whatever it is, to try to correct some of the misinformation floating around about recycling. It's not something that we can feel good about doing. What will make us feel good, and make the planet good, is giving plastic the boot altogether. For that to be possible, we must first boot the largest piece of trash of all...


“Aluminum: Material-Specific Data.” EPA, Environmental Protection Agency, 23 July 2019,


Hillier, Bernice. “Dead Rats, Old Food Are Contaminating Blue Bags and Fouling This

Recycling Plant | CBC News.” CBCnews, CBC/Radio Canada, 15 Sept. 2019,


Holden, Emily. “US Produces Far More Waste and Recycles Far Less of It than Other

Developed Countries.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 3 July 2019,

“How Many Times Can It Be Recycled?” OurAuckland,


Hunt, Kristin. “What Do The Numbers On Recyclable Plastics Mean?” Green Matters, Green

Matters, 13 Sept. 2018,


Leung, Hillary. “Southeast Asia Pushes Back Against Global Garbage Trade.” Time, Time,

Lui, Brendan. “US Waste Exporting Explained - Where Does Your Recyling End up?”

RePurpose, 16 Apr. 2019,

Pham, Mitchell. YouTube, TEDxUTAustin, 10 Apr. 2018,


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