Since I got back from the COP15 climate conference in Copenhagen, I have more questions now than ever about recycling. I want to know what really happens in cities across America, and especially here in Los Angeles. I wonder if most cities are recycling now, and if so, how are they doing it? I never thought much about this before until learning what is happening in Copenhagen and how it has dramatically reduced their landfill waste and energy bills. Now I wonder what is the most effective way to implement ambitious recycling programs in cities all over. I want to know if we are anywhere near as efficient as Copenhagen in our waste management plans, and what can we learn from them. In Copenhagen, recycling seems to happen in the background, with waste sorting occurring at massive facilities where they are able to effectively reuse and recycle 73% of all waste, and then incinerate 23% of the sorted “biomass” waste to be converted into household heat. The remaining 6% is comprised of glass bottles returned for deposit money. With this system, residents don’t even sort their own waste at home, and the city of Copenhagen is able to confidently state its goal of becoming the world’s first carbon-neutral capital city. That’s impressive to me. Here at home, we have recycle bins everywhere, but we also have a lot of things they don’t have in Copenhagen — microwave meals, for instance. These recyclable containers are used by millions daily in America, but I didn’t see any of these at grocery stores in Copenhagen. In America, a used, unclean microwave meal container disposed of in a blue recycling bin can possibly contaminate the entire bin and send all that recyclable waste to a landfill. In fact, I’m not sure people know how to properly dispose of recyclable waste here. I didn’t as recently as a year ago. My friend, Dan, makes eco-friendly juice pouches for a major company, and he told me that most recyclable plastic here in America actually goes to a landfill, because it’s not being properly cleaned before disposal. This got me thinking: When we throw something into the blue bin, does it ultimately get recycled? How can we be sure? I’ve been consciously recycling for years, but apparently I’ve been doing it wrong, and it made me wonder if this is a widespread phenomenon. For years, I’d throw my recyclable plastic food containers into the recycle bins after eating, but without cleaning them, and according to Dan, those food containers do not get recycled. Best case, they get picked off the conveyor belt at the recycle facility and tossed into a landfill. Sometimes, however, in the case of leaked liquids, one food-contaminated item can result in the diversion of an entire bin of recyclable waste to landfill. Dan says, “As consumers, it is our responsibility to deliver a clean piece of plastic if we expect our waste to be recycled.” This changed my behavior instantly, because I had already been separating my trash… I just had no idea I had to clean my food containers as carefully as I clean my real dishes. To tell you the truth, I think this new knowledge changed more than my waste disposal behaviors — it changed my eating habits. I stopped eating microwave meals, because if I have to go to the trouble of cleaning plastic food containers, then I may as well just cook my own food. It is a healthier option anyway. In any case, where I live, we take efforts to separate our waste into three containers. Food trash and non-recyclable, non-compostable items go into the trash bin. Recyclables go in their own bin, and now we clean our cans, bottles and plastic containers before recycling. And, we do our own composting here. All vegetable and fruit waste, tea bags and coffee grinds, eggshells and compostable paper go into the compost heap, which ultimately breaks down into soil and goes back into our gardens. But, my curiosity has now been peaked. I’m really fascinated with what happens to our recyclable trash once it gets picked up and hauled away. I’d like to follow it one day and see where it goes.
Recycling the Right Way
Since I got back from the COP15 climate conference in Copenhagen, I have more questions now than ever about recycling.