Sustainable Living Can Start at Home: A Look at National Recycling Efforts and Their Impact on Your Own Environmental Consciousness

What happens to the materials that we recycle? And are we even recycling them properly? The short answer is no - improper recycling and inefficient processes costs our national recycling system more than $300 million each year. David Muller, Meeting Revolution’s Sustainability Director, recently participated in a national collaboration project aimed at improvements to the overall PET (Polyethylene terephthalate) plastic recycling process and shared a few key lessons with our team.

By way of background, for this project, the assembled staff broke down and hand-sorted large bales of PET (generally weighing in between 1000-1500 lbs.) from every major region of the country. Items found in the sort included recycling from plastic bottles, aluminum, food products, thermoforms, as well as regular paper (and other) trash. The results of this annual project, now several years running, produce important information for those involved in the production and recycling of these materials, including bottling companies, municipal and non-municipal recyclers, industry associations, and a variety of other stakeholders. 

A few takeaways from the study include the following:

Drink Tap Waper, Filtered if Necessary: We have a bottled water addiction, with small, single-use water bottles making up the lion’s share of every recycled bale, regardless of region. Americans consume an enormous quantity of individual 8-16 oz. bottles, creating countless tons of waste that could be avoided (and money saved) by minor behavioral changes. Quite simply - use reusable rather than single-use water bottles, and use filtered/tap water and larger jugs. 

Greener Catering Practices Can Help: Caterers and food vendors for events should strive to minimize, if not fully eliminate, individual plastic bottles of water, soda or other beverages in their beverage service. Using water bubblers, pitchers/carafes, and durable cups/glasses - which can also make a great collectible and are easy to reuse or donate - is a much more sustainable option than individual plastic bottles. Durables are no less hygienic when handled properly. If individually packaged beverages are unavoidable, aluminum, glass, or paper-based packaging are preferable.

Know What to Throw: While we as consumers are societally recycling more, American consumers remain confused about what types of plastic are recyclable or not. According to Muller’s experience, every curbside (i.e. non-deposit) bale contained significant amounts of contamination. The principal contaminant was thermoforms (think salad greens and berry containers), which are only recycled by a handful of specialty recyclers. There were also significant amounts of trash and non-PET plastic. How can you help? Pay attention to what you recycle. The most common recyclables are paper and cardboard, metal cans, plastic bottles, and jugs. If you are recycling, be sure these materials are empty, clean and dry to avoid contamination with other recycling. 

Shift Away From Plastic: Consumers and municipalities shoulder far too much of the burden to recycle or properly dispose of all the waste resulting from their food and beverage purchases. Ideally, bottlers and producers would be responsible for full life-cycle stewardship of their products. It is encouraging to see examples of this shift in responsibility back to the producers in the form of Extended Producer Responsibility policies (EPRs), which are starting to gain traction--an excellent example is Recycle BC, in Vancouver. These policies provide sufficient incentives for producers to use materials other than plastic that still pencil out financially in terms of recycling—i.e.. aluminum and glass. As the recent, compelling documentary The Story of Plastic reveals, plastic producers knew from the start that recycling plastic would rarely make financial sense. Furthermore, a system relying on shipping all our plastic waste to China was never a sustainable or eco-friendly option anyway.

Bottle bills work! The deposit bales were far cleaner than the curbside bales, and existing data proves that states with a beverage container deposit system in place have much higher recycling rates than those that do not.

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