When you Throw Something Away, "Where is Away"?
For decades, many of us have been separating recyclables for industry to reconstitute or reuse. But now, we are required to ask the question, “When we recycle, where does it go?”
Since the first celebration of Earth Day in the 1970’s Americans have made public their concerns for the environment. A whole industry has grown up around products such as recycled plastic lumber, carpeting, insulation, and more. However, most of that which is recycled has not been repurposed locally but has been shipped to countries in Asia, especially China. China, noting damage to their air and water as well as an increase of cancer rates, has now banned much of the recyclables calling them “unclean.” As a result, this “dirty material” is now being rerouted to smaller nations such as Thailand, Malaysia, and Vietnam. In response, the aforementioned are now also refusing most shipment causing a crisis for other countries such as the United States, Japan, Australia, and Europe. Should we continue to recycle? Before we address this question, let us look at the specific issue of PLASTIC.
What about all this plastic?
Although plastic-like material was first created in 1862, the plastic bottle wasn’t introduced until 1947. Coca-Cola refrained from their use until 1970, and PET bottles weren’t available until three years later. Since that time plastic has nearly entirely wiped out the glass industry: plastic is now the product of choice, with even plastic car bodies planned in the near future.
Yet today, 91% of plastic (an amount weighing 35,000 times the weight of the empire state building) is not recycled. Besides filling our landfills with waste that takes thousands of years to biodegrade, it clogs our waterways and oceans as well. Currently, the banning plastic straws and single use drink bottles has begun. (Canada just became the first national government to ban single use plastic bottles!)
How does this plastic affect you and me?
Think for a second about what you have eaten today! A study published in June of 2019 suggests that microplastics – tiny, often invisible pieces of plastic – are found in our water, food, air, and stomachs at alarming rates. Plastics from waste don’t disappear, even if pieces of it gradually break into smaller ones.
The study finds that the average American eats around 200 tiny pieces of plastic per day. These particles, which are smaller than a sesame seed and often thinner than a human hair, come from the beauty products, microfiber towels, and foam packing material we use in our everyday lives. After being eaten, they move onward to sit in our tissues and bloodstreams. We don’t yet know what these microplastics are doing to our bodies, but the evidence suggests that eating and drinking food and beverages out of plastic containers can mess with out hormones, affect our reproductive systems, and make us even fatter.
So now, what should we do?
Obviously recycling – sorted properly – should continue. Avoiding the purchase of plastics in its many forms (such as plastic straws, single use bottles, grocery store bags, etc.) is helpful. In our fair trade store we avoid selling plastic as much as possible: we carry toys made of wood and cotton, offer recycled bags for reuse, and use paper and paperboard as much as possible for shipping boxes and cushioning material. We prioritize shopping for products made of natural materials, such as cellulose and paperboard.
Finally, since the proliferation of plastic has exploded in 50 short years, should we not now work to eliminate harmful plastic use within the next 50 (or less)? Yes, we will continue to separate materials for recycling and follow the chain as much as we are able in order to assure that our materials are indeed put to a good use.