Most of us do it. We were taught as a child or as an early adult. It was just what you did. One bin for the trash, the other for recycling. We were told it was good for the earth, good for the environment, and that was enough.
But why do we really recycle? What is behind it all? With the addition of carbon footprints and energy consumption added to the formulas, is it really that much better to recycle? Let's start by looking at plastics.
Most plastics in the United States believe it or not, are made from either natural gas, feedstocks (raw materials) from natural gas processing, and feedstocks from crude oil refining.
To make the industrial amounts of natural gas we now use to make consumable plastics, it took millions of years' accumulation of dead plants and dinosaurs.
Since we no longer have an allotment of dinosaurs or excess plant material to process into natural gas, we can safely say that there is a limited supply. If you have a limited supply of a resource, it is in your best interest to manage it responsibly. Here are some other reasons:
- Recycling plastic requires only a 1/10th of the energy needed to create new plastic from raw materials, so from a purely economic standpoint recycling saves money.
- As of 2016, 81 percent of the energy to make plastics still comes from fossil fuels (source: U.S. Energy Information Administration)
- When you use less energy to make an item, you create less pollution in the process.
- Less pollution means less energy also is later required to filter, clean or dispose of the pollution.
- Using less fossil fuel energy also means creating less greenhouse gas emissions.
- From an environmental standpoint, procuring raw material (natural gas, oil) for plastics means the destruction or substantial damage to an ecosystem, albeit on purpose or by accident. The less we use, and the more we reuse, the less impact on the existing environment.
- Some people say, “Just burn it.” Even if we burn plastic for the energy, the leftover ash is comprised of highly concentrated toxic waste that will have to be discarded into in a landfill. No landfill is 100 percent perfect. A small earthquake or a landslide could tear the lining, resulting in toxins leaching into the groundwater. Also, you have just burned a resource, one that you will now never be able to replace. Why not recycle it instead?
- Recycling just makes sense. There is nothing in your house that you use everyday that you would just only use once and then throw away. Why do we think it is fine to do it outside of our homes? Isn't your neighborhoods, your town, your state, your country, extensions of your home?
- Do it for the children. Yes, I did it. I played the “for the children” card. Why not? I am still of the generation that grew up with a mother that emphasized that I should leave something better off than when I used it. You might be the type to think, “By the time my child is grown they will have technology to recycle everything I throw away, so why bother?” Well, guess what, that time is NOW, and all we need is YOUR help. It's time for all you parents, grandparents, godparents, stepparents, uncles, aunts, to all start setting an example for your children. At this moment in the U.S. we are using the equivalent of FOUR Earth's worth of resources. Four! How much longer do you think we can keep this up? And what will be left for our children if we don't change our habits?
- Do it to ensure our security and self-sufficiency. The United States imports 25 percent of its oil from other countries. That means we are dependent on those countries to maintain the security of our standard of living. Imagine if we took all the plastic thrown away and reused it. I bet we wouldn't need that 25% anymore and we would be more secure knowing we were independently sustainable.
- Lastly, if you have seen the news lately, China, the No. 1 importer of scrap plastics, has set up more stringent guidelines for accepting quality recyclable plastics. They are so stringent that millions of tons of plastics that the U.S. would normally ship there will now be turned away. We need to take care of our own waste, especially plastics, now more than ever.
A special reminder. Recycling doesn’t always mean not throwing something away. You have to be committed to the process or it won’t work.
People in the recycling industry call items that are not where they’re supposed to be “contaminants.”
For instance, a plastic bag mixed in with a bale of cardboard is a contaminate, and if it isn’t discovered in time it could damage the machinery, or if pieces of it are mixed in with the pulp it could contaminate a whole batch of paper that would then have to be either reprocessed or thrown away. Both of these results are costly and make it harder for recyclers to make a living and stay in business.
The recycling process starts with YOU taking the time and effort to separate recyclables into the proper bins at the transfer station or on your curbside, if you have that option.
There are 7 different types of plastic, and each one has a unique recipe of chemicals and different melting points that the recycler needs to take into adjust for. Each one also has a different resale value. For example, #2 plastic can fetch $400 a ton for different colored containers, and $600 a ton for opaque plastic containers. That’s a huge difference, especially for our transfer station that is trying so hard to keep yellow bag fees down by selling the different plastics and other recyclables. So please follow through and make sure what you’re recycling gets into the right bin.
I hope I've given you some things to think about when it comes to recycling. A lot of you are probably thinking, “What can I do?”
If you aren't recycling all your plastics, start now. If you are, ask your friends and neighbors if they are too, and if they aren't encourage them to start.
Many businesses recycle paper and redeemable bottles and cans. Encourage them to do more. Instead of having a stack of paper plates and plastic utensils at your workplace, bring in some old plates and silverware from a yard sale that people can use instead.
Have a bin for plastics as well as redeemables.
If you don't have a recycling program, start one. Don't wait for someone else to do it. Take on the challenge and make it a success! Right now the average recycling rate for plastics in the U.S. is only 10 percent That is pitiful.
In Maine we have the added incentive of a bottle deposit, but I know we can do more. Norway, for instance, has increased their bottle deposits to approximately 16 cents for small bottles and 31 cents for large bottles. Their recycling rate is now at a stunning 96 percent.
So again, why recycle? Do it for the money. Do it for the environment. Do it to save energy. Do it for the children. Do it because it is the right thing to do.
If you would like more information on recycling in your town or would like to volunteer and help increase the recycling rate, contact the Waste Watch Committee at firstname.lastname@example.org on Facebook page under Midcoast Waste Watch.
And one last thing to think about: If your car is not moving, why is it running?
David Edwards lives in Lincolnville