So I’m still on my quest to reduce my carbon footprint and bring attention to climate change. It hasn’t gotten any easier, however, and I was really disappointed when I listened to a recent episode of Plant Money about recycling. It seems that we used to send the majority of our recycling to China, and they don’t want it anymore. Instead of getting paid for plastic recyclables, landfills have to pay to have it taken away- it has gotten too expensive to sort, clean, and transform into new material.

One reason is that US municipalities manage residential recycling primarily via single-stream curbside collection. Single-stream means residents use their recycling bins to comingle glass with aluminum and steel cans, various types of plastic, newsprint, junk mail, cardboard, and other paper products.

People also tend to throw in a lot of things that shouldn’t go in the bin, such as plastic bags, batteries, light bulbs, soiled food containers, used napkins, and what has been coined “wish-cycling” materials. The term “wish-cycling”  describes the phenomenon of people recycling things that they think or hope can be recycled. The pizza box made of cardboard (covered in grease), the plastic peanut butter jar (still smeared with sticky residue), the resealable granola pouch (made of both plastic and aluminum): they’re all made of materials  that consumers think of as recyclable, so into the blue bin they go. I know I’m guilty of this, as well.

When tainted or hard-to-recycle items enter the material stream at a processing facility, they may contaminate the other recyclables, rendering the entire batch useless. Wish-cycling can also damage processing equipment, like when plastic bags end up tangled in sorting screens and conveyor belts.

As a result, most of the material that we in the US have been diligently recycling has gone into the landfill anyway. Where I live, the City of Houston has been caught mixing recyclables with garbage and dumping it into the landfill. It’s damn depressing.

There are things we can do to help the problem, however. Here are some tips I learned from Miller Recycling:

Ten Ways to Reduce Your Environmental Impact

    1. Buy beer, wine and cocktails in cans made from 100 percent recycled materials instead of from glass bottles. Glass can be recycled again and again, but it breaks easily and the broken pieces can get mixed in with other materials, which makes sorting difficult.
  1. Keep cardboard separate from the rest of your recyclables to keep it clean and free of grease or food waste.
  2. Make cleaning solutions using reusable spray bottles. Cleaning product bottles are often wish-cycled, but they’re often either tainted or made of plastic types that are hard to recycle.
  3. Discontinue K-cup usage. They’re convenient but wasteful, and especially in large businesses, the used cups pile up quickly. Switch to reusable filters or a standard drip coffee maker.
  4. Bring reusable bags with you when you shop, and not just at the grocery store. Arrange for your business to distribute sturdy reusable plastic bags or totes to employees for their personal use.
  5. Buy food in bulk, which typically requires less packaging than single servings. For convenience, repackage the food into single servings using washable bags.
  6. Avoid buying plastic pouches like the ones used to hold trail mix, snacks, oatmeal and many kids’ foods. Buy things like nuts and oatmeal in bulk instead, using your own containers if possible.
  7. Reduce your use of disposable dishes and utensils. Styrofoam and some other types of plastic (like that used to make red Solo cups) can’t be easily recycled, although they’re often wish-cycled. For businesses that keep break rooms and kitchens stocked with these materials, moving to washable tableware may cause grumbles among people who are used to tossing their dishes, but it’s a better choice for the environment.
  8. Establish a collection site for plastic bags, like a dedicated bin placed near the trash and recycling bins. Return them to a grocery store for proper recycling.
  9. Spread the word about wish-cycling. Hang reminders and checklists above trash and recycling bins that help users determine whether an item is truly recyclable.