To make the biggest impact, recycle more mindfully

Jen Kochaver, Features Editor

Recycling, once a somewhat radical method of reducing waste, has come to feel like a natural part of life, at least at Augsburg. Most people hardly think twice before throwing papers, plastics and glass into a blue bin. But this thoughtlessness is creating a big problem. There’s a lot about the ways we currently recycle that just isn’t sustainable.

In the 90s, recycling was revolutionized by single-stream recycling. Suddenly, people went from carefully sorting plastic from paper from cardboard from metal from glass to throwing it all in one bin, saving time and effort. That savings had a cost, though, leading to more trash in our recycling plants and more trashification of otherwise recyclable materials. Single-stream recycling, though appealing in its ease, is in many ways too good to be true.

Often, contamination of paper and plastic renders the material unusable, and a lot of this contamination happens as a side effect of single-stream recycling. For example, one of the most common forms of contamination comes from shattered glass, something that happens quite frequently when recycling is compressed in the back of a dump truck. The shards of glass get pressed into pieces of cardboard, which renders both the glass and the cardboard completely unrecyclable.

In January 2018, China, at the time the world’s largest buyer of recyclable waste, placed bans on many paper and plastic products which have been “contaminated,” rendering them more difficult to recycle and leading to a lower-quality recycled product. This change in policy has made recycling much more expensive for U.S. cities who previously relied on China to buy the waste. With nowhere to go, many places have been forced to simply throw the recycling into landfills.

“Wishful recycling” is a phrase coined to describe acts of recycling nonrecyclables out of optimism that the item will still be recycled (or out of a genuine but naïve belief that the item is, in fact, recyclable). Though the wishful recycler intends for good to come of their action, what it really does is lead to a less efficient recycling process, slowing things down and sometimes breaking equipment. The most common example of this is plastic bags; many throw these into their recycling, knowing that plastic basically never decomposes and hope the shopping bags to be recyclable, and then these bags go on to wreak havoc on recycling equipment, requiring the entire plant to shut down while the bag is untangled.

Another very common act of wishful recycling is coffee cups! Though coffee cup lids and sleeves are totally recyclable, the single-use coffee cup itself cannot be processed as recycling due to the waxy, waterproof lining they have inside.

Though it’s tempting to do the thing which is quickest and feels most generous, we need to start thinking more critically about what and how we recycle. By being more mindful about our recycling practices and committing to putting in a little extra effort (and maybe a few extra bins), we can recycle our stuff way more effectively.

To learn what is recyclable in Minneapolis, and how to recycle if you live off-campus, check out http://www.ci.minneapolis.mn.us/solid-waste/recycling/ for more information.

This article was originally published in the Feb. 15, 2019 issue.