When Recycling Isn’t Enough–Managing Your Waste Stream for Sustainablity

By Neva Knott

Sourcing, energy usage, and waste are the core concepts of sustainability, a much tossed around and little understood buzzword of today’s consumer culture. It’s also one of the values that underpins natural resources management. In this post, I’m not talking about “go green” consumerism; rather, about how to take responsibility for your own waste stream–as a global citizen and inhabitant of this beautiful yet ill and overburdened planet.

I grew up during the era of the Give a Hoot, Don’t Pollute campaign. So when I read about Garbage Patches in the oceans, see trash on every dog walk I take, and consider all the disposability designed into our mainstream daily life, I cringe.

This past Fourth of July weekend, I took it upon myself to clean up a stretch of beach in Taft, Oregon the day after the fireworks. I was compelled after getting down there around coffee o’clock to walk my dogs, to find giant driftwood stumps emanating smoke, pillows left on logs, beer bottles, boxes, toys, a child’s shoe, about a billion snack wrappers, broken glass, cigarette butts, chicken bones. I could go on. What really flummoxed me, since–sadly–I am used to seeing trash everywhere I go (I often say it’s not a hike in Oregon if I don’t come across a disposed diaper) was that the trashed area was just about 50 yards from a huge hotel. I guess the guests thought housekeeping services extended to their beach party mess.

The reactions of other people as I filled my trash bag bowled me over. Most acted like I was intruding, one mom thanked me and encouraged her small children to help, and two little girls were sent by their mom to ask for some cardboard to use to start a fire.

The next day the beach was trashed again.

At Thanksgiving this year I was exclaiming to my aunt and uncle about this trash-fest. They live on the Washington coast, on the Long Beach Peninsula. I was horrified by their response to my description of the Taft scene.  The Peninsula is a destination on the Fourth. This year, 60,000 pounds of trash were cleaned up after the visitors left. The volume of trash spurred a community uproar–the conflict, though, is that tourists bring much-needed tourist dollars. Even so, my aunt explained shop-owners felt enough was enough.

Where does trash go?

As this video illustrates, we’re creating an enormous amount of trash.

Just a week ago, I attended a TEDx Salon on sustainability here in Portland. The Salon included three TED Talk videos and two live presenters: Marcus Young and Terra Heilman. Topics ranged from waste reduction through better product design, the sustainability of coffee-growing (Marcus Young), food waste, collaborative consumption, and “recycling doesn’t matter” (Terra Heilman). I was overwhelmed by the scenarios of waste described.

Heilman’s presentation in particular answered a big question I’ve had. Her example was a plastic water bottle. Even with aggressive recycling campaigns and habits, recycling plastic water (or any single-use beverage) bottles doesn’t yield much in terms of waste reduction. Most still end up in the landfill. What Heilman found in her research is that using a “durable” reusable bottle reduces the waste impact by 97 per cent. This is a huge consideration, given that plastic products take 400-500 years to biodegrade and cause myriad problems for humans and in the environment.

Trash is not sustainability. It’s time people take responsibility for reducing their waste. I’m decreasing my trash by working to eliminate plastic and other non-degradable trash from my grocery cart. It’s not that hard, but, it does force me to buy food to cook rather than packaged stuff. I even made my own almond milk this morning. It was easy and cost less, and I put it in a peanut butter glass jar I’d saved.

There’s so much information out there on the web about plastic and reducing waste–one of my favorite sites on the topic is Treehugger.  But what I want to convey in this post is that we can’t keep fooling ourselves that recycling is taking care of the problem, nor can we afford to keep using single-use packaged products–which seem to be a huge percentage of the waste stream. For sure, most of what’s in the above photo is snack packaging.

5 thoughts on “When Recycling Isn’t Enough–Managing Your Waste Stream for Sustainablity

  1. Your comment with regards to your trash collecting walks made me laugh as I was under the impression I was the only one who felt like a bit of a mom or dad picking up after the kids. I am lucky that I am over 6ft and a bit rough looking so when I politely ask people to pick up chip packets etc, most do.
    Unfortunately as a woman Fiona tends to get a few muffled comments on occasions .
    We have a big shopping chain store that advertises there eco prowess all the time, then days later issues every shopper limited plastic toys for every $5 spent. This started a huge fad and the result is tons apon tons of plastic toys in our tips within a month.Single use items are my worst. We just need to get to grips that this cannot continue. It frustrates me no end to see even my own family buying single serve items because they are to lazy to potion out the item at home. As a kid I just never saw 12pack cereal. How hard is it to measure out a bowl of cereal? I often think I sound like a old bag going on and on but I just don’t seem to be able to grasp how educated people think we can continue this way when we are sitting at the 6 billion mark.
    We all need to live and enjoy ourselves but lets think about tomorrow.
    It cannot and will not work if we continue to behave in this way. This is fact.
    Great blog, Thank you. Dan

  2. Great post! You’re so right that there is so much trash all around us every day now, that sometimes we tend to not even see it. People throwing empty fast food bags out their windows on the expressway is my pet peeve. Not only is it littering, but it’s dangerous.

  3. I am with you Neva. It has become harder and harder to go out into the world and not find litter and plastic everywhere. In our family, we try to watch what we buy and how it is packaged is huge for us. Personally, I have mixed feelings about how well recycling is working. When you hear about recycling centers turning away glass because there is no market for it…it makes me wonder what other materials aren’t economical to recycle? I live for the day when our society and culture can look at this issue as being a matter of right and wrong and not some abstract economic argument? I know…I’m a dreamer.

  4. I sometimes worry about my obsession with rubbish and recycling to the extent that it troubles me when I know something is going to end up in landfill when it needn’t. I sometimes go to extremes to recycle/reuse things to the extent that I think I may have a reputation…

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