Recycling and When to Stop

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Recycling is a good thing, right? Well, the landfills are generating natural gas these days. They go through everything before it goes in, so even if you do not get those colored bins figured out, your glass and plastic stuff is probably being recycled into playground equipment or astroturf.

Just recently, a company was founded simply to take drink bottles from the trash stream (I envision the Mississippi), clean them and grind them, and make some more plastic drinking bottles. That is better recycling. Better recycling would be to reuse that plastic bottle eight to ten times before you throw it away in the first place. Or do not buy them at all.
There has been a generation of recycling at the second-hand stores, flea markets, yard sales. By donating tons of items, anything usable (flexible term), these items avoid the landfills, and will be reused by someone lower down on the food chain. Imagine the millions of dollars generated, the thousands of jobs created, and the money saved by this type of recycling over the last fifty years.

It has been fifteen years now, but I was visiting my sister once in her new apartment in California. She was in her mid-thirties and had never had any children, and was busy with work and a new husband. They had been in their new apartment for about three months. In the 1980s, the average California apartment kitchen looked like a glorified hallway, with a table and chairs at one end, and four square feet of counter space, and too few cupboards. I opened a tall, skinny door, which I presumed was the broom closet, only to find about 300 small plastic containers and three bags of lids. The containers were all the funky yellow margarine tubs, and the white and red/blue whipped cream tubs, the fading myriad advertizing weakly shouting at me still from their broom closet tomb. I realized that she was recycling them by using them for leftovers, or freezing stuff (these containers do not freeze stuff airtight), recycling food by reusing these containers.

I looked at them all, some were orange tinted from use by spaghetti or hamburger helper. Some had that telltale melted cheese fringe on the inner edge of the dish from an extreme microwave episode, where the oils in the hot food tried to reclaim the fossil fuels right in the microwave, but was rudely interrupted by the fire safety conscious chef. I wondered how long she had been saving them … I did not want to know.

There was no need to inquire about this closet of unlimited container potential. She was recycling, it was a good thing. Or was it? Was she helping the environment? Was she saving money? Was she wasting space, and keeping plastic of the recycling loop?

My sister still keeps a lot of unnecessary things, she has one linen closet with about 200 washcloths. I have tried to calculate just how many people might require this number of a single item in a household, and came up with fifty people. All I could think about when I saw it was … where does she put the ones she has just washed? How often does she take them all out and wash them all? Is my sister a hoarder? Can you make a quilt out of washcloths?

Alas, the recycler gone awry. Think of the triangle arrow logo of the recycling codes on the bottom of all plastic consumer items, with a number inside the triangle. The number designates the type of plastic it is. The arrow triangle designates a cycle. It is a loop. Obviously recycling is just that, a recycling of raw materials back through the manufacturing process to prevent waste.

I think we ought to be able to take the margarine tub, peanut butter jar, or margarine jar, back to the store, and pull a lever and refill the darn thing over and over again. But it is not going to happen any time soon.

Saving something to use later is only recycling if it does not take up precious space, will actually be used, and will prevent the purchase of another item that does the same thing. Today there are thousands of decorative items made from used drink cans, plastic bottles, and this is recycling, but only temporary, as the item will still get tossed, and may not still qualify for the triangle coded bin it was originally intended for. (I see bleach bottle dried flower planter, with macramé hanger …)

I guess that is the reason for the three Rs. REDUCE, RE-USE, and RECYCLE. We are making some difference by not burying the plastics, glass, paper, and especially metal. But do not forget, that the REDUCE comes first.



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