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Rethinking Recycling

Rethinking Recycling

The green-home builders at Tommy Williams Homes in Gainesville recently came across a startling statistic. Globally, only nine percent of all the plastic humans have ever produced has been recycled.

The rest ends up being incinerated, or our landfills or oceans. There it floats around as Texas-sized islands and kills sea life.

And when plastic items have been worn down by the elements into tiny pieces smaller than five millimeters, they become what are known as microplastics. These microscopic particles have been detected in our soil, our water, and in the very air we breathe.

Plastic is forever

One study found plastic fibers in 87 percent of human lungs studied. Another found microplastic particles in 94 percent of water tested in the U.S.

Unlike the other types of waste we produce, plastic—which is made from heavy crude oil—doesn’t break down easily over time. According to Pew Trusts, our oceans now contain at least 150 million tons of plastic. This amount that will soon surpass the weight of all the fish in the sea.

Some plastic items in a landfill can take up to 1,000 years to decompose in landfills.

Feel-good futility?

But what about all that washing and sorting and segregating from our trash that we’ve been doing for decades? Recycling keeps plastic out of the waste stream, doesn’t it?

Then why do we see beaches worldwide so covered with plastic throwaways that you can’t even see the sand? Why are turtles and dolphins and whales around the world found dead with plastic products cramming their stomachs?

The New York Times reports that much of what we so diligently recycle ends up in landfills. China’s 2018 pullback on accepting our recyclables meant that recycling companies have nowhere to send it.

  • Bloomberg reports dozens of waivers have been issued allowing recyclables to be dumped in Massachusetts landfills. 
  • One Oregon company sent all its recycling to landfills in 2018.
  • The Florida Sun Sentinel reports that in Broward County, up to 30 percent of recyclables end up in landfills. 

So where did we get the idea that recycling was the answer to plastic consumption?

According to National Public Radio (NPR) and their reporting partner, the PBS series “Frontline,” oil and plastic executives have known since the 1970s that the vast majority of plastic cannot or will not be recycled. Nevertheless, they spend millions of dollars telling people the opposite.

The reason? To sell more plastic.

The dirty secret

NPR correspondent Laura Sullivan interviewed a top industry official, Larry Thomas. Thomas ran the plastics industry’s most powerful lobbying group back then.

“He said it was pretty simple. He said the public was turning against plastic, and they needed people to feel good about it,” she told NPR.

So in 1971 an organization called Keep America Beautiful, Inc., created an ad campaign to promote recycling. The organization was funded by packaging and beverage companies, according to a guest editorial published on CNN’s website.

“Its goal wasn’t to stop pollution,” reports Alex Totterman, founder and CEO of Cove, a California-based company that has developed water bottles made of biodegradable materials. “The goal was to make consumers believe that their plastic waste could be recycled, so that packaging manufacturers could keep making more. That turned out to be a lie that has led to a planetary disaster.”

Stopping the plastic plague

You’ve heard the slogan, “reduce, reuse, recycle” to help the planet. We’d like to suggest that the first action is the most important.

Reducing the amount of plastic we use is the only viable solution for the moment, at least until more biodegradable containers can be developed.

Unfortunately, if you want to buy milk, or bread, or even free-range eggs, in most cases you may not have any options. But the next time you’re in the grocery store, take a look around at the vast amount of products sold in unnecessary plastic packaging.

Especially check out the produce section. You see row after row of pre-cut fruits and vegetables arrayed in hard-shell plastic containers. Then call your supermarket’s corporate headquarters and demand they reduce their single-use plastic plastic packaging.

Other ways to help

  • Opt for fresh produce that hasn’t been pre-cut, or shop at a farmer’s market if you can, and bring your own reusable produce bags.
  • Bring reusable grocery bags to the store.
  • Try to find alternatives packaged in cardboard vs. plastic, if possible.
  • Choose paper or reusable straws.
  • Invest in a water filter instead of buying bottled water.
  • Avoid cosmetics containing “microbeads,” which are tiny pieces of plastic. They are too small to be filtered out by municipal water systems. Often, they end up in rivers, lakes, and the ocean. Not to mention our bodies.
  • Buy biodegradable plastic bags if you can. Biodegradable plastics decompose in three to six months.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says, “By reducing the amount of trash produced and reusing existing materials, we can all make a difference by protecting the environment, conserving natural resources, and sustaining the planet for future generations.”

This is the only planet we have. We have to take better care of her.

For the finest in net-zero homes, turn to Tommy Williams Homes, Gainesville’s most experienced green-home builder.

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