Why are there so many bins to choose from? Why don’t they just make recycling easier? This post is about why how our advanced waste makes reeks of complexity, and what you can do to make your daily recycling habits easier.
Have you ever found yourself staring at a sea of different waste bins, trying to figure out what goes where? Or have you ever had a heated argument with a friend or relative about how to recycle? If yes, then you’re just like the rest of us and it begs the question, why is recycling so hard?
Recycling is a big industry by now and few will argue that it isn’t an important thing to do. This is not a post about how, or why to recycle your waste, but about why there are so many rules and so many bins.
In the tiny country of Denmark, there are a least 100 different schemes. This can result in a lot of confusion if you move from one city to another because you have to learn the rules of recycling all over again. It also means that you could end up in a heated debate with your ant Irma about which bin to put your newspaper in.
Why do different cities have different recycling bins?
If you travel, you might have noticed different waste bins, with different shapes and different rules.
Maybe you’ve entered countries and thought;
Hot damn, they recycle a lot of stuff here! Or the opposite, they don’t recycle at all. What is wrong with these people, have they no shame?
The answer to why there are differences in what cities recycle is partly money and logistics. It takes money to transport and sort waste. But you also need to have facilities which are able to treat the waste. Not all cities have equal access to waste treatment, hence they develop different schemes to match the local circumstances and financial situation.
But that still leaves us with the more important question.
Why is recycling so hard?
Rule are rules, right? Why can’t each city just make easy rules to follow? The answer may seem counterintuitive:
We have made astounding advances in technology. The world is full of magnificent things, that just one generation ago would have bedazzled the world. Even my coffee maker seems to require me to have an MIT degree to operate it.
Look around you, look at all the amazing things you have. You are reading this on a laptop, iPhone, tablet, or e-reader. Most of your kitchen appliances are a mix of metals, plastic, rubber, electronics and maybe even glass. Even your clothes consist of a myriad of different products. Fabric, zippers, beads, even el-wire.
We live in an amazing, awe inspiring and highly advanced world, and because of that we produce advanced trash
We have highly sophisticated waste. You can’t just toss it. Something as simple as a container for moisturizers may have a glass bottom and a plastic top. Should you sort it as glass or plastic? Or should you separate the two pieces? Should you rinse out the moisturizers or is that ok to leave in?
What about electric toys? Plastic or e-waste? Metal, maybe?
All these questions are a natural byproduct of our advanced world.
Being a waste geek, I often get asked questions about waste and how to sort it.
Recently I was sent this picture with the following question:
‘I can’t seem to figure out if some types of waste are paper or plastic. Like this After Eight wrapper. Paper or plastic?
And what about that little thingy that closes bread bags? It contains both metal AND plastic, so where should I dispose of it?’
It’s a darn good question, and I personally never heard it before.
The after Eight wrapper is likely a paper with some form of a coating, making it near impossible to recycle. Furthermore, the way the Danish recycling system works in most part of the country is, if your waste has touched food you can’t recycle it – this will likely change in the future as demand for resources rises.
The little bread twisters are devils and cause frustrations for many recycling superheroes. If you don’t use them directly to lock other bags then sort them as metal, as the plastic will be melted off in the recycling process.
Our waste and recycling system is just a logical byproduct of the way we live our lives in this high-tech world.
The above are both great examples of how the tiniest things in our everyday lives, are complex beyond reason. Why should I have to think about this when I just want to recycle and do the right thing?
It’s not that the people planning your local recycling schemes can’t do their job, or that big corporations are deliberately destroying the planet. It is just the unfortunate consequence of making everything around us more and more complex.
But, I can’t change that. Can I?
The world is insanely advanced, and every time I buy something I get about 10 different materials and I have no clue how to separate them – what do I do?
Let’s be honest, one person doesn’t change the world. But one person can definitely move it in the right direction. Want to be that person? It’s surprisingly easy. If you’re new to this, start with the easiest step. If you’re already a pro, move on to the more experienced step.
Stop buying plastic bags. Yes, we are starting at baby steps here.
It’s so easy to carry an extra shopping bag on you, that you have absolutely no excuse for not doing this. And compact shopping bags come in all kinds of cool designs now, so you can look good while lowering your ecological footprint.
You can also simply fold an old shopping bag, and keep it in your purse. Here is a video (and a link here).
(See how easy it is. I do this with my bags at home)
Roughly 80 percent of those bags were used in North America and Western Europe. Every year, Americans reportedly throw away 100 billion plastic grocery bags, which can clog drains, crowd landfills, and leave an unsightly blot on the landscape.”
You might think that your bag can’t possibly make a difference. Well, worst-case scenario, no it doesn’t’ and you save money and plastic for no other reason. Many countries pay for the bags, so there is money to be saved.
In a better case scenario, other people will see you whipping out your smart little bag, and think: ‘Wow, that’s really clever. I should start doing that.’ They will start doing the same and will introduce other strangers to the concept. And so it ripples.
Buy products with only one material or with a take-back/lifetime warranty
- Clothes made from only cotton/wool/silk
- Bags or shoes made from just one material
- Doc Marten shoes (Lifetime warranty)
- Furniture made from only one material (Go here for more sustainable furniture)
- An entire webshop which only features lifetime warranties
Don’t throw stuff out.
This might seem like a really small step, but it makes a large impact. For example, if you want a new dining room table maybe consider shining up your existing table before spending money on a new one.
Remember that there is joy and pride in taking care of your belongings, of learning skills that enable you to polish a table, or sew on a new zipper.
I want to clarify that I do not endorse hoarding! There is a huge difference between buying a lot of stuff and not getting rid of it, and buying only stuff you really like or need and making sure you can keep it for decades.
There you have it, a few easy steps to get you started in regards to dealing with the advanced waste in your life.
I’ll end this post with a personal anecdote. I am fortunate to still have two grandmothers. They have taught me many things growing up, both in terms of what to do, and what not to do.
They are both children of the war and have both lived in times of scarcity. One of them is a hoarder. Not the horrible kind you see on TV, but she buys thing she finds on sale. She doesn’t need it. She doesn’t even really want it, but she buys it.
The other grandmother seldom buys anything. Her kitchen has not been remodeled since the late 50’s. She has told me that sometimes she thinks about remodeling it, but then again, she likes it the way it is and doesn’t really need a new kitchen.
Because her and my grandfather always make purchases which are well thought out, and out of necessity instead of desire, they were able to own recreational things such as a boat, a summer house, and an auto camper. This on the salary of one working-class adult.
My grandmother was a stay-at-home mom, and they made do with my grandfather’s salary. Of course this was much easier to do in the 60’s than it is today, but still.
Because they never wasted money on things they didn’t need or didn’t really want, they can now afford to stay in the house they have lived in since the 1950’s. A house they love and cherish.
Many of their peers have resorted to selling their houses and moving into a smaller apartment because they could not pay the mortgage out of their retirement plan – but not these kids. Now, in their 80’s, they take care of their house, and enjoy the freedom and space it gives them.
That’s the kind of person I want to be when I retire. Someone who doesn’t spend money on things I don’t need. Someone who can stay in my home if I so desire. Someone who has had a life of adventure, of boats and auto campers and hopefully, someone who can inspire my grandkids to live a life of joy, with or without a lot of material goods.