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Plastics and other annoying ‘recyclables’

January 18, 2021

[Posted by Chuck Almdale]

If you’re like us, you tend to toss just about any clean plastic into the recycle bin. That turns out not to be the best practice. Here’s some common errors, adapted from a Discover Magazine article by Anna Funk in May 2020.

[NOTE: Don’t miss our companion piece “Recycling Reimagined” posted 18 March, 2021]

  1. Recycling something “just in case”: Recycling centers can — generally — get the useless ‘residuals’ out of the good stuff, but it takes time and then they have to toss it out. China — darn them — isn’t taking our surplus plastic waste anymore, and some U.S. cities are just incinerating it, sometimes to generate electricity. So you have to look for those ‘triangle numbers’ on the bottom, although your local recyclers may not want certain categories. And it has to be clean; that takes water. They don’t want disposable cups, gooey bottles, broken glass, oily food boxes, paper towels and chunks of food.
  2. Recyclables inside a plastic bag: They’ll probably toss out the entire bag, unopened. Dump the stuff into the bin, then put the bag wherever it belongs (or reuse it – hey, there’s an idea!)
  3. Reusable tote bags: Unfortunately, they almost certainly have a bigger energy/resources footprint than the grocery story plastic or paper bag. According to the Danish EPA, in order to equal —but not better! — a typical plastic bag’s resource impact, you’d have to reuse the following bags: paper or plastic reusable tote – 35-84 times, cotton tote – 7,100 times, organic cotton tote – 20,000 times.
  4. Organic cotton: It’s ‘organic’ largely because ‘un-organic’ GMO cotton resists bollworms, raising cotton yields 60-100%. Bollworms love organic cotton crops, and they literally eat up much of the product. Plus all cotton plants suck up a lot of water. So ‘organic cotton’ is one of those ideas that look great on paper, but not so hot in the real world.
  5. Buying new, more sustainable versions of stuff you already have: Anything, anything takes materials, time and labor to produce. Reuse, reduce, recycle. Even gas-guzzling clunkers can continue for many years to have a much lower resource impact that would a new car that runs forever on sunlight…or dreams.
  6. New cars: See above. A ton (literally), at the least, of material is needed to make a new car. That material came from somewhere — the ground, a forest, a laboratory, it didn’t just ‘fall to earth’ like manna from heaven. The Argonne National Laboratory says that a hybrid car will cancel out the materials footprint over the long run, which may be a lot longer than you’re used to. Forget buying a new electric car every three years. Or ten.
  7. Ride-sharing: In order to turn a profit, those Uber and Lyft drivers, between rides, are often driving around looking for riders. A 2018 study in Denver found that ride-sharing increases average miles driven by 84% per trip. So if you drive your own car to work 60 miles round-trip, your Uber ride will be chalking up 110 miles. Society-wide, that’s no free lunch.
  8. Assuming that vegan, organic, local or non-GMO is environmentally innocent: In addition to organic cotton #4 above, there are a lot of other miscalculations and unsupported assumptions. Almond milk? While its carbon footprint is smaller than cow milk, it takes over a gallon of water to grow one almond. Locally-grown food may travel shorter distances, but large batches from distant places can be much more energy-efficient. Growing under lights with piped water instead of sunshine and rain can negate your locally-grown resource footprint savings.
  9. Putting compostable/biodegradables in the landfill, not the compost bin: It may never biodegrade in a landfill. Bacteria and fungi need oxygen to work, and tightly-packed landfills are often anaerobically sealed with clay and plastic to prevent liquid seepage. Compost when possible.

Well…that’s a bummer. So much of our effort and good intentions gone to waste. No pun intended.

What numbers can be recycled in Los Angeles?
Plastics stamped with the numbers 1 through 7 can be recycled. You can find the numbers on the bottom of the container. Once again, make sure containers are rinsed out. Further, plastic planters, food and blister packaging can be recycled.
– According to SCPR (KPCC 89.3FM)

Here’s a couple of websites that address Los Angeles Recycling Issues
Public Works of L.A. County – Recycling Bins
County of Los Angeles – Home / Residents / Environment / Recycling

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