Wednesday, August 7, 2013

What it really means to recycle

Especially around where I live, recycling is a big deal. Every Tuesday morning, the tired masses drag their big blue bins out to the curb before they begin their days. I could set my watch to it. Remember to check the number on the bottom of your plastic containers, bundle your newspapers and crush your cardboard! You want to help save the planet, don't you?

Okay, so we recycle that stuff, but where does it go? I have always wondered if the stuff I put into my recycling bin actually gets recycled. I forgot about that carton of milk I had in the back of the fridge, so I dumped out the chunky stuff (eww) and threw it in my blue bin. If the carton was actually recycled like we want to believe, then someone is consuming milk from that very same carton, chunks and all. That's not something I really want to think about.

Remember that strange documentary-turned-reality show Bullsh*t? Penn and Teller's excuse to rake all kinds of muck on paid television? I remember that they tried to uncover the dark secrets behind recycling in the United States. I still find it confusing that Americans commonly trash their recyclables without a fraction of the system that Canadians have in place. I mean, for god's sake, we have a composting system as well. There was a skit wherein an unsuspecting suburbanite was asked to sort a pile of 'garbage' into upwards of eight different coloured bins, all pertaining to a different kind of waste.  People seemed more than happy to do it, even though the skit was a farce (purple is only for soiled diapers!). The show also discussed the ever-rising cost of recycling and how some specific materials are so costly to recycle that it would be cheaper and faster to simply throw them away and create new products to replace the discarded ones. Supposedly, according to Penn Jillette, the only recyclable item that it is monetarily sensible to recycle is aluminum soda cans.

If we think along terms of money and profit, production will be more efficient, yes, but why should money be the long-term goal? Isn't sustainability and reducing waste more important? If we keep throwing things away that are easier to replace than to recycle, won't we eventually run out of resources to replace those items?

It feels like plastic bags have been around forever. Regardless of where they began, they probably will last a long time in landfills. To counter this eventuality, Toronto government has placed a five cent fee on the use of every new plastic bag in retail stores. Instead of understanding this fee as a sort of 'ban' and finding new ways to cope with bringing purchases home, Torontonians have become outraged, as they always do, and continue to purchase plastic bags, begrudgingly exchanging their nickels. Big stores like Wal-Mart have realized that as long as the fee is paid, it doesn't matter who pays it. They still offer plastic bags for free, and as I understand it, they pay the fee on behalf of the consumer. I feel like this is almost an underhanded marketing ploy, as in "come shop here and don't bring your gross, reused fabric shopping bags". Every time I buy two things at Wal-Mart, they give me a plastic bag for each item. These are things like a tube of toothpaste and some socks. I could have stuffed both of them in my purse, much less need TWO bags for them. And because I am not really expecting my purchases to be spread so thin over this multitude of plastic baggery, I often leave the store without all of my purchases. It may sound stupid, but it could happen to you!

Here's a fun idea. So, we recycle plastic bottles and tin cans and stuff like that. I have it from a reliable source that if you can decipher the impressed dots on the bottom of beer bottles, a long line of people who put their lips on the bottle before you will reveal itself. Those items are easily recyclable, but what if we recycled other things that you'd never think of? Just as an example, what about whiteboard markers? All you'd need to do is replace the felt thing inside that holds the ink. Everything else remains them same, I mean, it's not like we have scientists at work constantly innovating on whiteboard markers...or do we? I'll just assume we don't. So why not recycle those? And I mean, really recycle, like beer bottles. Don't crush them down and remould them, actually just replace that one inner piece. This could be applied to so many things that we use and don't re-use. I think I remember seeing a visual pun on a television show (was it The Simpsons?) where a student is clapping erasers and catching the dust to mould back into pieces of chalk. That's a world I'm looking to see.

And last but not least, let's talk about reusing. Reusing is my favourite thing in the world. I have a desk that is made out of milk crates. It's certainly nothing like the picture below, but just think of the supposedly 'trash'-labeled objetcs that we could be upcycling into beautiful and functional things.

Let's live in a world like that. Upcycling also brings out the inner creativity and logical thinking in a person that we are missing too much of lately. Imagine you have a broken lightbulb, a boring side table and some glue. Junk, right? WRONG. Make a mosaic on the tabletop out of the broken glass! Okay, probably not a great idea. Don't hurt yourself. But my point is that upcycled objects are often the most beautiful, unique, fun to make and relatively cheap objects, and I could certainly go on.

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