March 13, 2010

Zero Waste Home’s Last Resort: Recycling

At a party, when people first find out that I run a zero waste household, they like to share with me that they “too” recycle everything…

I need to clarify something:

Running a Zero Waste Household is NOT ABOUT RECYCLING.

It’s about REFUSING first and foremost.

Home waste management starts outside the home - and then the disposal of what you refuse does not even need to be addressed. For those items that we do allow in our home, we practice the '3R' mantra (Reduce-Reuse-Recycle) religiously and IN ORDER. Recycling is the last resort. A Zero Waste Home is not just about kicking the trash can, but is primarily about refusing the unnecessary packaging as much as possible, therefore reducing recycling (what goes in your recycling is, afterall, a home “reject”, or a “waste”, isn’t it?).

Furthermore, only a percentage of what we recycle, actually gets recycled. However, the cleaner the material that you recycle, the more likely it will be recycled (no, no, your pizza box can’t go in there).

So here is what to keep in mind when shopping, based on an article I found in Co-Op America Quarterly magazine: A simple list of what gets Recycled (can be recycled again) vs. Downcycled (made into an un-recyclable lesser kind of product).
- Aluminum - recycled
- Steel – recycled
- Glass – recycled
- Paper – downcycled (about eight times)
- Plastics #1 and 2 – downcycled (generally once)
- Plastics #3 to 7 – rarely downcycled
- Plastic bags – sometimes downcycled

As for "compostable" bio-plastics - it is "Buyer Beware": Only hot city composts can actually compost them, your backyard variety can't. Not all city composts accept them either (our local trash hauler won’t for example). Some people also mistakenly recycle them, which mucks up the recycling stream. With all that in mind, their disposal becomes worse than "real" plastics.

All things considered: when buying a new product (or a used product for that matter, since its eventual disposal will become your responsibility), I believe that it is best to favor aluminum (unless it comes in contact with food), steel or glass, all of which can be easily recycled again and again. Note: Some aluminum containers are plastic coated.

What’s in our recycling bin this week? As little as we could:
- Two empty bottles of white wine since I have not found a refillable white that is drinkable yet.
- Two envelopes from medical statements (no online billing option).
- One paper label, from a lemonade bottle with an attached reusable cap that I am saving for a wine refill.
- A few paper notes printed/handwritten on both sides and corners ;) since I take a break from paper making in the rainy season.
- An empty roll of TP since, you guessed it, we still don’t have solar (Zero Waste Bathroom).
- One flyer from Comcast since (damn it!) I am still fighting their junk mail . I have called them so many times…they won’t leave us alone!

I know Scott wishes that we had beer bottles on the list - but their caps don’t recycle… and the refillable jug doesn’t work for an occasional drink of beer after a hard days work in the yard.

What’s in your recycling?