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Why Sorting Your Trash Into Blue Bins Isn't Recycling

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Blue bins in Cupertino, California | Photo: Peter Kaminski/Flickr/Creative Commons License
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A segment on KCET's award-winning TV show "SoCal Connected" has been produced in tandem with this story. Watch it here now.

About 25 years ago, America went through an environmental revolution, and it showed most prominently on television. Sets for shows from dramas to sitcoms suddenly sprouted blue plastic bins in kitchens and garages, and actors would casually put cans and bottles in those bins as they voiced dialogue.

It was a remarkable cultural shift, largely coinciding with the 20th Anniversary of Earth Day, and promoted by groups like the Environmental Media Association who pushed producers to include recycling on their shows the way product placement folks pushed them to show brand name consumables.

Since then, recycling has really taken off: it's hard to find a community in the United States that doesn't have at least a modest recycling program. You might be tempted, gazing out on a nation awash in blue bins, to conclude that recycling has won that environmental revolution that started 25 years ago.

You'd be wrong.

Putting cans and bottles and newspapers in a recycling bin to put out at the curb is a fine thing, and the fact that more and more people are doing it makes recycling possible. But putting recyclables in a recycling bin isn't recycling. Recycling is the process of taking those raw materials from your recycling bin and turning them into new things. If those cans and bottles and newspapers don't get turned into new products -- preferably new cans and bottles and newspapers -- then recycling isn't happening.

In other words, putting those blue bins out at the curb isn't recycling any more than stocking grocery store shelves is cooking.

Lots of things can happen between the recycling bin and the factory to make your carefully sorted trash actually go to the landfill instead. Improperly sorted recyclables, broken glass ground into newspaper, contaminants like motor oil in plastic bottles, or food grease on cardboard can cause an entire truckload of collected recyclables to be discarded. So can the vagaries of the commodities market: when the price drops for scrap plastic, for instance, your liter soda bottles can and do end up littering riverbanks in other countries when the local processor can't sell them.

Even when recycling does work well, it's not always the best solution for handling our discarded things.

Take glass, for instance. Put a used beer bottle in the recycling bin and it gets hauled away, crushed, hauled some more, melted down at high temperatures, formed into new bottles, transported yet again, filled with another portion of beverage, then shipped to a warehouse and then to a store.

If that glass bottle was to be reused rather than recycled, we can skip many of those steps. Most importantly, the bottle would be washed and sterilized rather than melted down, saving a huge amount of energy.

Same goes for other items like grocery bags. Now that those ubiquitous plastic bags are being phased out across California, people are turning to more durable shopping bags that can be reused hundreds of times. Instead of theoretically recyclable single-use plastic bags getting hauled to a factory and recycled, with additional energy and resources needed every time you use a grocery bag, the reusable bag just goes between house and store in your car or on your bike at a minimal cost of energy and resources.

But wait: there's an approach that's even better for the environment than reuse or recycling: not buying the stuff in the first place. Given a choice between a theoretically recyclable single-use water bottle and a reusable water bottle that you might refill thousands of times before tossing it in the trash, the best choice for the environment may well be just drinking out of the water fountain without using any bottle at all. Even a reusable item, when it eventually wears out, will consume resources when it's recycled or landfilled, and so will creating its replacement.

That's why recycling experts created a sort of mantra decades ago, and it's still relevant today. That mantra: "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle." Those options are listed in declining order of priority.

Reduce: It's best to consume less stuff, whether that means choosing an item with less packaging (or none at all,) or even just doing without something you don't actually really need.

Reuse: If you have to buy something, make sure to get a durable, reusable version if it exists. Reusing items saves energy and resources compared to buying new ones. And that's true for items from containers to cars to clothing to -- even though it pains me to say this as a writer -- books.

Recycle: If you can't Reduce or Reuse, then this is the last resort before the landfill. Don't take for granted that material labeled "recyclable" will actually be recyclable in your community. (Most plastic containers aren't, despite those "chasing arrows" symbols imprinted on the bottom.) Make sure to sort your recyclables according to your local hauler's directions. And if the products you buy aren't made of recycled content, then you're not "closing the circle" of supply and demand.

It's not that sorting your recyclables and putting them out at the curb isn't important: it's crucial. But we can be doing so much more.

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