One of the less talked-about options for environmental responsibility is the ‘refuse’ part of the slogan: “Recycle, Reuse, Refuse”.
Refusing non-recyclables does not mean taking your breakfast cereal out of the cardboard box and insisting the store deal with it, but refusing to buy products that are packaged in non-recyclable packaging in the first place.
There are some products that can be recycled, but are so difficult to do so that there are few centers that can accomplish it. Therefore putting these items in the recycling bins means they’ll be sorted out and end up in the landfill. Knowing which products your waste collection service does and does not recycle will help you decide what you should avoid. Just because it is marked with the arrow-triangle with a number in it does not mean it is recyclable, or if it is, that it will be.
An example is plasticized paper cartons. We often refer to them as waxed paper boxes – perhaps once they were waxed – but they are actually made capable of containing liquids by coating the paper with polyethylene; a plastic. Aseptic cartons, used to store non-refrigerated liquids, also contain a layer of aluminum. Separating the aluminum, plastic, and the paper is a complicated and expensive process and few cities are equipped to do so. If you’re thinking, “Paper: a renewable resource as well as being recyclable, is better than plastic.” You’d be wrong unless you live in one of those very few cities that do recycle paper food cartons. The plastic jugs are easier to recycle, the plasticized-paper cartons will end up in your landfill.
Styrofoam is a trademark of the Dow company, but the material itself is called expanded polystyrene (EPS). Polystyrene is plastic #6 on the recycling chart. Technically, EPS can be melted down and re-used in other plastic products, but it often isn’t accepted by waste companies because of a few problems that come with it.
EPS is used in a wide variety of food packaging as well as packing for appliances, electronics, household items and as home insulation. EPS trays for packaging meat and fish will be contaminated by these products to the point that storing them for pick-up creates a health hazard. EPS packing materials are very light in weight but so bulky that they consume huge volumes of storage space in sorting facilities. A few facilities are able to melt EPS down into briquettes of dense plastic that are 1/10 the volume of the original expanded foam product. This helps greatly with the storage and transportation issues.
If your waste management service does not accept EPS for recycling:
- Look for eggs in paper cartons.
- Look for meat and other food items on plastic or paper trays rather than polystyrene.
- Avoid fast food restaurants that package food in EPS boxes and cups, patronize those that use paper or foil wrappers instead.
- Avoid mail-ordering from companies that use the EPS “peanuts” as packaging and use those that use the biodegradable cornstarch peanuts.
- If you receive items packed with EPS, break it up into manageable chunks and use it in packaging items you must ship rather than sending it to the landfill. Some will complain that this is just pushing the problem off on someone else but if that person also re-uses rather than disposing, then there is no problem to deal with.
- And of course, using permanent canvas shopping bags rather than the thin plastic grocery bags saves manufacturing new bags all the time. These bags are recyclable (generally they get compressed into plastic lumber), but if we can cut the demand for new plastic bags we can reduce the consumption of oil needed to make a constant flow of new bags.
You can effect change in the way manufacturers, distributors, and stores package and display their goods through your buying habits. Make it clear that you want them to be ecologically responsible; buy products in truly recyclable packaging, avoid those that aren’t.