The waste stream has a lot of Weber County residents wound up, especially when it comes to recycling. Apparently, we’re not very good at it.
Recycling just isn’t as convenient as it once was. Residents now have to look for tiny numbers on plastics. They have to rinse out containers. And after dutifully sorting their materials and tossing them in the blue recycling cart, their good feelings are undone when they learned they bagged their recyclables, so they ended up going to the landfill anyway.
But recycling woes aren’t the root of the problem. We produce too much waste. Instead of being more mindful about what’s going in the recycling bin, Utahns should think about the bigger picture and cut down the amount of garbage they generate, especially single-use plastics.
“We all know the three R’s — reduce, reuse, recycle. There’s a reason ‘recycle’ is the last one,” said Kate Bailey, policy and research director for Colorado-based Eco-Cycle.
Bailey has given presentations at Weber State University’s Intermountain Sustainability Summit on waste reduction. She said while recycling programs have helped divert garbage out of landfills, it also tends to make consumers complacent.
Because we recycle, we don’t feel so bad about buying more single-use products.
Water bottles are a good example, Bailey said. While beverage containers are frequently made out of an easily recycled plastic, there’s also an environmental impact that comes with the energy burned making packaging and the pollution generated by shipping the bottles to market.
“There’s that complacency of, ‘Well, I recycled it,’” Bailey said. “That’s helpful, but it’s better if we didn’t produce that waste in the first place.”
U.S. residents generate 258 million tons of municipal solid waste each year, according to the most recent figures from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Nationally, we recycle only around 34.6 percent of that garbage, but locally, Weber County residents have a far worse recycling rate.
A county audit from 2017 showed residents recycled less than 6 percent of their waste. While the ratio of recycling has gone up over time, the amount of garbage we’re producing is also on the rise in recent years (although it’s down from a peak in 2009).
In 2015, Weber County residents sent 227,650 tons of waste to the transfer station. That’s almost 1,900 pounds per person and more than five pounds of waste each day. Each resident sent close to 1,500 pounds of garbage straight to the landfill in a year.
Reducing the amount of waste we produce isn’t easy, but like recycling, it can become a daily habit.
Bailey suggests starting by eliminating five common single-use sources of garbage — shopping bags, water bottles, paper to-go cups, styrofoam take-out containers and plastic utensils.
Instead, consumers can use reusable bags, bottles and bring their own containers to restaurants for take-out and leftovers.
“It’s any easy way for you as individual to make a difference,” she said. “What’s fun about it is you start to see other opportunities to reduce waste in your life or business or school.”
After reducing these common throwaway items for her daily routine, Bonnie Christiansen with Weber State’s Sustainability Practices and Research Center went further. She conducted her own waste audit.
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“I took my garbage can and dumped it in the middle of my floor in the kitchen,” she said.
The assessment wasn’t as messy as it sounds — Christiansen composts her food waste — but it revealed a lot about the pervasiveness of packaging.
“I found the biggest piece of plastic was a chips bag,” she said.
She called the company to complain and asked them to switch to something compostable.
“I think they were surprised I was even asking, but they said they’d run it up the chain,” Christiansen said. “I don’t think it’s one person calling that will make a difference. It will take 50, maybe 75, maybe hundreds saying ‘I love your product, but I don’t want the plastic.’ That will make the change.”
THE PROBLEM WITH PLASTICS
Plastics are one of the most troubling types of garbage in the waste stream since most don’t biodegrade. The fossil fuel-made materials break down into smaller and smaller bits, blow into waterways and work their way into the food chain. The problem is, plastics are everywhere.
“Plastic use is expected to quadruple by 2050. We may have more plastics in the ocean by weight than fish,” Bailey said. “It’s this moment for us to say, ‘Wait a minute, hold on, is that the world I want?’”
Both Bailey and Christiansen point to a 2017 study that found 9 billion tons of virgin plastics have been produced to date. Around 80 percent of our plastics end up in landfills or floating around in the environment. And we’ve only really been making plastic materials for the last 50 or 60 years.
“My parents almost never had any plastic and I’ve never heard them say, ‘Oh my gosh, it was so awful,’” Christiansen said. “We could live without them, and pretty happily without them.”
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She looks for alternative types of containers at the grocery store, made from glass or cardboard. Buying food in bulk section also makes a difference, especially if shoppers bring their own reusable containers.
Still, it’s hard to completely avoid plastics, especially bags. While municipal recyclers don’t want them since they clog up sorting machines, several grocery stores will recycle thin-film plastics.
“We’ve been doing it for years,” said Aubriana Martindale, spokeswoman for Smith’s Food and Drug. “We have barrels in vestibles in of all of our store locations to encourage plastic bag recycling.”
They don’t just take shopping bags, either. Customers can also recycle the packaging around their toilet paper or paper towel rolls, their dry cleaning bags and other plastic wraps.
“They turn it into new plastic bags or it goes into that hard plastic furniture, like park benches, hard plastic office chairs and folding chairs,” Martindale said.
While the world of garbage may seem overwhelming at times, zero-waste advocates encourage starting small. All those actions add up over time, even when there are a few setbacks like changes to recycling programs.
“I’m just starting on this journey myself as well, so in some sense it was a good wake up call,” Christiansen said. “I used to think I could send all my stuff away and someone else would take care of it, but that’s not true.”