A Gizmodo article I saw today about the bad things that people include in their recycling containers, putting the employees at risk, jamming up the machinery and frequently contaminating the recyclables so they have to be sent to the landfill instead got me thinking about alternatives to our current single stream recycling system.
The mere fact that people are throwing items such as used diapers and sharps into the recycling suggests that either people do not care, or perhaps they do not have a good understanding of what goes where.
A number of years ago now we stayed in an apartment in Tokyo. Unlike the US, the Japanese system for recycling has the individuals responsible for separating out the different recyclables and taking them to a special room downstairs in the building where paper, card, plastic, glass and cans were all stored separately.
This is far superior to the single stream approach popular in the US. If the different materials are not commingled in the first place, they do not require separation at a processing plant. Of course, it does require commitment from everybody to do their part, and that may well be the issue in the US.
Similar separation happens in parts of Europe too, keeping paper, glass and metals separated at collection time. This makes it much easier to process, and reduces the probability of contamination leading to recyclables being sent to the landfill.
Growing up in England, we had milk delivered to the door every morning in glass bottles. When we finished one, we rinsed it out and placed it back on the doorstep for collection the next day. Those bottles were taken back, washed/sterilized and refilled.
Similarly, many beer bottles were collected, washed and refilled. Reusing glass containers like this makes far more sense than recycling them, even if they are nicely separated.
With the rapid growth of the supermarket, the daily milk delivery went away, as did reuse of beer bottles (supermarkets were not in the business of collecting bottles from their consumers and returning them). Instead, the bottle banks appeared where glass bottles, separated by color, could be pushed through holes and eventually taken away for recycling.
Today, at least in England where I grew up, milk delivery is making a come back, along with the glass bottles and reuse. Here in the US, having groceries delivered, rather than going to the supermarket yourself, is also becoming more popular. Perhaps these delivery drivers could collect used glass containers and return them for refilling?
Not everything comes in glass containers, and while there is definitely more that could, the plastic container is not going away anytime soon. Some of those containers (the ones typically marked with the number 5 in the recycling symbol) can easily be washed and reused. We have a collection of these from soups, cheeses, dips and more that we wash and use for storing left overs and anything else that we might normally have wrapped in plastic film.
There has been a steady march towards making the products we buy less and less repairable. Whether that is by design, or just by economics, increasingly when the appliances, electronics or other items we own go wrong, we simply throw them out and replace them.
In some cases, the repair is easy: I just finished replacing a plastic component of our clothing dryer that had worn out causing it to squeak loudly when working. I only needed a screw driver and 10 minutes on YouTube to show me the order to dismantle things in. The parts were easy to find online, and were delivered to my door in a couple of days.
At other times that is not the case. The bearings failed on the washing machine that we bought at the same time as the dryer a year back. That resulted in damage to the front seal. When I looked at the cost to buy those parts, that alone made the repair uneconomic compared to buying a new machine. Most of the reason for that was by design too: the parts I needed were not available individually; it was necessary to purchase entire assemblies, most of which were still in good condition.
There was a time when repairing machines like this was as commonplace as repairing a car when it goes wrong. Now we do not do this enough. If we are lucky, they get sent for recycling (not through the recycling can though – that is not safe). In many cases, they end up in landfills, or dumped on the sidewalk if they’re too large.
Batteries are a special case, and one that has become more and more significant with the explosive growth of personal electronics. Everything from the laptop I am typing this post on, to phones and smart watches now contain rechargeable batteries. They do not last forever, and, in fact, they do not last anywhere near as long as the devices they power. As people are discovering, having the battery changed in a device that is a few years old can breathe new life into it. Sadly, in a quest to make devices thinner, and more resistant to water, changing the batteries is no longer a simple task.
Manufacturers who choose to seal batteries inside their devices should be compelled to swap them for new batteries rather than encouraging people to simply buy a new phone, tablet or laptop.