June 28, 2012

Recycling Habits

Old habits die hard.  I grew up without a recycling service and except for aluminum cans, which we could take to a recycling center for cash, we didn't do any recycling at home when I was young.  College was a different story and there were recycling bins in each room, as well as around campus.  However, college isn't quite the same as the 'real world' so I would count my first true experience with a recycling program as my years in Chicago - from summer 2006 through summer 2009.

The Chicago city recycling program when I lived there was known as the 'Blue Bag' program.  At grocery stores you could purchase a roll of blue plastic bags, and recyclable items were placed into these special bags and deposited in the same garbage cans as trash, which was put in the standard white or black plastic bags.  The blue bags were supposed to be separated from the trash and then sent to a recycling center for further sorting and processing.  Eventually the blue bags were replaced with blue plastic trash cans and the blue bag program was retired.  It was widely known as a failure and the city stopped even separating the recyclable blue bags from the regular trash sometime in 2008, a couple of years before the program was formally scrapped.

If you've lived in Chicago or are familiar with Illinois politics you probably wouldn't be surprised to find a poorly managed public service in waste management, or other areas of government.

Although the items I attempted to recycle in Chicago likely never reached a recycling center and are probably in a landfill tomb somewhere today, it was still a good learning experience in getting used to sorting the waste types and becoming more cognizant of which types of items can be recycled and which can not.  The obvious items like plastic bottles or aluminum cans were easy to remember to put in the blue bags and I was used to doing so from childhood and college.

Other items, however, were equally recyclable and I never thought to separate them.  Many items I continued to throw into the garbage because I was still in a worldview where that was the standard and I relied on the habits I had developed in earlier years.  For example, a toilet paper roll is just as recyclable as a newspaper or other cardboard product but I never thought of recycling them until I attended an Earth Day presentation at work and they noted that item specifically is often overlooked.

I continue to learn and adjust my habits to be more Earth-friendly and over the past couple of years have found many items that I wouldn't have put into recycling until I thought more about what they were made of and thought more thoroughly about what we were throwing away.

If you have a recycling program (or don't but want to get into the habit of recycling for the day that you do) here are some common items that you may not be currently recycling.

  1. Toilet paper rolls
  2. CD and DVD cases
  3. Batteries
    1. This is especially important because many types of batteries contain hazardous materials like mercury, lead, cadmium, and nickel. Many post offices and other stores will recycle batteries for you.
  4. Junk mail and other paper waste
    1. Almost any type of paper waste can be recycled and junk mail is a commonly encountered item for nearly every American.
There are many other items that can be recycled, and as recycling programs continue to evolve and new technologies are developed the list of items that can be recycled continues to grow.  

Contact your local recycling program for details in your area, and if you don't have a program already talk to your local politicians and environmental groups to express your support for one.

The best option is to reduce consumption.  The second best option is to reuse.  The third best option is to recycle.

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