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Why “The Why” is Needed to Recycle Right

By Cara Blumenthal

You just finished lunch at your favorite salad hotspot. You get up from the table, gather the plastic bowl and lid, plastic fork and knife, and flexible plastic packaging (that previously packaged the fork and knife) and head over to the trash and recycling bins. Quick! What do you do? Do you stand there, for longer than you are proud of, contemplating into which bin to sort your waste? Perhaps you use some haphazard decision-making process that draws on hearsay and a recent conversation among your coworkers about what is and is not recyclable? If so, welcome to the club.

As an avid recycler, I am often the person to whom my family and friends turn to ask the question, “Can this be recycled?” I am the first to admit, however, that I don’t always know the answers. Recycling rules can be outright confusing. What constitutes narrow-neck versus wide-mouth? What do the plastic identification numbers 1 through 7 mean? To complicate the matter, recycling dos and don’ts vary widely from place to place depending on regulations and the capabilities of the local recycling facility, among other factors.


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At the same time, there has been a noticeable increase in interest around waste over the past few years. Some trending waste and recycling news stories include Adidas’ sneakers made from recycled ocean plastic and a spike in interest around outrageous food waste statistics. Moreover, an increasing number of cities (including Washington, D.C.) and corporations (such as Procter & Gamble and Sears) are committing to zero waste goals. These zero waste goals should be pursued through waste reduction and reuse first, but they will be achieved largely based on the success of recycling initiatives.

So what can the average citizen do? According to the June 20, 2015 Washington Post article on recycling, one of the biggest challenges with recycling in DC is the problem of “contamination.” Contamination is a somewhat jargony term used in the waste industry when non-recyclable material is sorted incorrectly with recyclable material. When this happens, it can degrade the value of the entire recycling stream, or worse, it can render the entire batch of recycling non-recyclable. In other words, contamination can cause your recycling to end up in a landfill or, for the majority of DC’s waste, to be sent to an incinerator.

To echo the letter to the editor response to The Washington Post’s June 2015 article, consistent messaging and education are needed to solve this problem. Explaining “the why” of correct recycling sorting is a crucial component of this much-needed educational process. People should not just be told what to do and what not to do when sorting their waste. People should be told the reason behind these actions.


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A quick Google search revealed good examples of simple educational tools that municipalities and waste companies have used to educate the public of “the why” in order to influence recycling behavior. Clark County, Washington, for instance, has this simple one-pager with pictures and arrows to show why plastic bags are not allowed in the county’s recycling carts. Similarly, the city of St. Louis, Missouri has an entire webpage dedicated to the details about why plastic bags are not accepted in its recycling stream and tips to reduce plastic bag use.

Simple fliers, websites, videos and other educational tools will be vital to decreasing contamination and supporting the success of recycling in D.C. The recycling industry has the potential to contribute to the D.C. economy through revenue from material sales and job creation in addition to contributing to a cleaner environment and saving natural resources. Let’s give the recycling industry a fighting chance once more. Let’s both educate ourselves and call on our local government to educate us about “the why” so that we have the tools and knowledge to recycle right.

Cara Blumenthal is a graduate from the Masters in Sustainability Management program at American University. She recently started working for the D.C. Department of General Services on recycling and waste management implementation.

#education #green #GreenLiving #Recycling

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