Do you know how to recycle? I didn’t

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The more I learned about sustainable farming, the more things I realized that I needed to change. I needed to use less plastic, ditch plastic bags altogether, switch to glass whenever possible, and recycle more than I trash.

When we lived in Seattle I was impressed by the city’s system of recycling. There was even a compost bin in the basement of our complex and the scraps from that went on to fertilize the city’s parks and greenery. We began to keep a small compost bin on our kitchen counter and immediately felt better about tossing our scraps that we knew were going to a greater cause. There were even compost bins at most fast food joints. Recycling there was so streamlined, it was easy to switch to a habit of rinsing recyclables, composting, and responsibly taking care of our waste.

After moving to Phoenix, I found out that there is no city recycling option at my house, located outside of town. Intent on continuing my recycling habits, we began stashing recyclables in a brown paper bag in the kitchen and later taking them out to dump into bigger bags that stay in the shed until we can make a trip to the recycling facility about 5 miles away and deposit them ourselves. It works, but it’s not very helpful in convincing all the rest of our neighbors to recycle, something that is already a struggle for many Americans.

I hadn’t given much of a thought to recycling until I lived in Germany, where children pick up the habit from a young age. If recycling is second nature in Germany,  where I learned to recycle with the colored-bin recycling system, why does a rich nation like the United States struggle so much? In Germany there were strict fines and some straight faced angry glares if you were found putting the wrong thing in the wrong bin. Proper recycling is commonplace.

This is recycling in Germany:

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Paper                                     Glass                          Plastic/Cans                          Trash

To be even more precise, the glass is usually further broken down:

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(Clothes Donations)    White Glass          Brown Glass          Green Glass

And in a shed near these containers at the dorms I lived in in Germany, there would be small bins for batteries, corks and other more specific items.

A study I found compares how,

“Germany recycled as much as 70% of their waste in 2007, the US only recycled around 30%. For 2020, Germany is aiming to reuse every single item produced, making the country more sustainable and eliminating the need for landfill.” (The story of stuff)

Back to Seattle’s efficiency at recycling, there was also a fine for throwing away too many recyclables. I found that Seattle was a fantastic model that mimicked Germany in many ways, not just recycling. They also make efforts to reduce energy consumption, and provide better education on food and nutrition. Living in Germany was the first time in my life I re-thought my use of a blow dryer. Embarrassingly, I had never learned that I should consider the amount of energy I use. Shutting the light switches off behind me saved us money on our electric bill, but I never realized I might be doing it to save the planet.

So why are Americans in general so stubborn about recycling and over-consumption, of well, everything? Education.

Most of the Americans I know who do recycle and really do want to make a difference, also don’t know how to properly recycle. I even had a tricky time tracking down what exactly Phoenix does recycle. And after some digging I found a list online of what my area can recycle. For example, plastic bags are not recyclable here. In Seattle, they are. Signs on the recycle bins clearly state what should and should not be recycled, but by the time a person has reached the recycle facility, they already have their recyclables bagged up and are most likely not going to search through and take out what isn’t supposed to be in there. The city also doesn’t recycle inserts from paperboard boxes, paper towels, napkins, tissues or paper plates, or potato chip bags. PS: Your recyclables also cannot be bagged, and need to be loosely dumped into the containers. Did you know that?

Most people find it all so confusing that they give up completely and just throw it in the trash. 

Did you also know that you are supposed to rinse your recyclables? All the gunk left in those yogurt, milk and juice containers attracts ants and other bugs. Milk left in the bottom of your milk container that you stuff into the recycle bin will also stink. Using Phoenix as a prime example, think about all the liquids you leave on your recyclables and what that might smell like after a couple of days sitting in an enclosed metal tin that will reach well over 100 degrees during the day.

Did you learn how to properly recycle when you were a kid? Were you taught about the importance that all of your actions will have on our environment?

In the next blog, I’ll go into what I learned about how to reduce my waste contribution to our planet, how I created a vermicompost bin, and how I learned to make more educated decisions about the purchases.

NOTE: This blog includes affiliate links, which means I may receive a nominal commission when you make a purchase at no additional cost to you. I have not been paid for my opinion and any commentary on the efficiency of a product is solely my own opinion and experience.

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