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May: we got hosed about plastic recycling

Neat crushed stacks of plastic to be recycled.
...about THAT much is recyclable Credit: bymbeo

Think about your recycle bin for a second. How much of that stuff gets recycled? In the last 10 years, has it gotten better or worse? Thinking back to the 90s in Washington, I sure don't remember being able to put rinsed plastic in recycle bins, but I'm glad we figured that out ...Except we DIDN'T and it's all a lie! It's such a lie that California's Attorney General is going after ExxonMobil for misleading the public that plastics are easily recyclable for decades. The EPAs most recent data from 2018, stretching back to 1960, shows that the highest percentage of plastic recycled in a year was...9%. By comparison, for the last decade we've recycled 99% of lead-acid batteries (like car batteries), just under 50% of aluminum cans, at least 68% of paper and 25% of glass. Those facts are really going to sting next time I carry my cardboard box on down to the bin!

A "sippy-lid", or strawless beverage lid
We coulda been using these for decades! Credit: seeknewtravel

The Three Rs (reduce, reuse, recycle) will always bring up that friend or family member who says that corporations are the ones doing the polluting and should own up. These people are absolutely correct, but do not underestimate public demand! You know what worked pretty well? The public got rid of straws a few years ago, and single-use plastic bags are also banned in a growing amount of US cities. Your lower demand for plastics as a tool-borrower or secondhand shopper instead of brand consumer, your outrage at the revelation that less than 10% of plastic has ever been recycled, and your hard efforts at being sustainable can be minted into real change!

A can-recycling bin shaped like an aluminum can.
More of these single-item bins! Credit: CoreyCarr

If you're one of those folks that spends a ton of energy on reducing your carbon footprint, channel some of that frustration into public awareness and write your district representative. Robert Budway, an environmentalist and author, suggests we call Congress and ask for our state recycling systems to focus on expanding aluminum can recycling. 75% of all aluminum and steel ever produced is still in circulation, meaning we can recycle it pretty much forever. The best part about this plan is that it becomes cheaper for the public in the long run. Used can recycling generates a ton of revenue for the facilities to spend on less-efficient plastic recycling, instead of constantly being funded by taxpayer money. So keep on doing what you do for the Three Rs, but speak to your representatives and see if we might be a little smarter about recycling.


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