The pains and joys of recycling

recycling bin
CC BY 2.0 siftnz

In our ongoing look at how sustainable living differs in the city and country, our two writers turn to the subject of recycling. For Margaret and Katherine find that it's not a black-and-white issue in this edition of TreeHugger Town & Country.

Margaret: Finding my DIY

It probably isn't a surprise that as a writer for TreeHugger, I spend a lot of time thinking about recycling. As I report on how policy makers and companies deal with waste, it naturally makes me think about the choices I make in my personal life.

My thinking about recycling has been heavily influenced by the book "Cradle to Cradle" by Michael Braungart and William McDonough. In an ideal world, products would be designed to be recycled or composted. When it's useful to be able to dispose of something, say tampons or toilet paper or medical devices, we could have materials that are totally nontoxic and would just biodegrade. For items that we want to last a long time, say cell phones and shoes, I would be able to slap a shipping label on my used up product and send it back to the manufacturer, who would use those materials to make more shoes or cell phones.

I don't live in an ideal world, I live in New York. We actually have a pretty decent recycling system. There's no curbside pickup for compost like there is in Portland yet, but there is door-to-door collection for paper, metal and glass. The city also recently expanded its plastic recycling, and will now collect all rigid plastics, from yogurt cups to Solo cups. To recycle plastic bags or food waste, you'll have to work a little harder to find a collection point. The same goes for electronics and batteries.

There are a few categories that are much more frustrating, and clothing is a big one. I frequently sell or give away clothing that I no longer wear, but just as often I end up wearing out beyond repair.

One solution is to donate these items to the textile recycling program run by Grow NYC, which has drop off spots at a number of farmer's markets and also has a program that installs clothing recycling bins at apartments and schools.

Another solution is to go DIY, and treat my old clothes as raw material. The clothing I'm most likely to wear out is the clothing I love wearing, clothing that's attached to stories and memories. I've tried my hand at re-making garments, and for the most part have concluded that I'd better leave tailoring up to the professionals. However, I've fallen in love with quilting.

I make crazy quilts, which don't follow a pattern and tend to be heavily embroidered. It is very time consuming, but for me the process is enjoyable. So far, I've finished one small quilt, and am working on a larger second one. The fact that I'm recycling has become secondary to the pleasures of sewing, although I started quilting initially as a way of giving a second life to worn out clothing.

Katherine: Recycling used to make me feel good!

When Maggie suggested we write about recycling for our Town & Country column, I thought her timing was impeccable. I’ve just made a resolution for Lent – to create as little recycling as possible for the next forty days. My goal is to not even fill a single blue box, though I don’t know if I’ll succeed. It’s part of the bigger Zero Waste quest in which I’m trying to minimize all waste generated by my home and family.

You might be wondering why I’d want to minimize something like recycling. It’s supposed to be a good thing, isn’t it? Yes, and it is, in some ways. Recycling used to make me feel good, too. “Look at all this stuff I’m recycling!” I’d think as I hauled the blue bin out to the curb for biweekly pickup. I shopped for groceries with the blue bin in mind, always selecting items that came in recyclable packaging over those that didn’t.

That was before I’d read books such as “Zero Waste Home” by Bea Johnson and “Garbology” by Edward Humes. Now my opinion has changed. Recycling still has its place, but I’ve come to realize that it’s far from being an adequate solution to North America’s serious trash problem. Recycling can be a cop-out for consumers, making us feel justified about buying stuff in excessive packaging.

The sad reality is that many of the things we toss in the recycling never get recycled because they disappear from the recycling stream and are never accounted for. And plastic is never recycled; it’s always downcycled into a lesser form, until eventually it ends up in landfills. My goal now is to avoid packaging of all kinds whenever possible, but if I can’t, to choose glass, metal, paper, and wood over plastic, giving preference always to reusables.

The blue bin, however, is only one aspect of the recycling I do. I also have a composter in the backyard that receives all food scraps, minus meat and dairy, since my town doesn’t offer green bin pickup. At least my garden benefits from the rich composted soil.

I can relate to Maggie’s dilemma about what to do with old clothes, specifically those that are too worn out to donate to a thrift store. There are only so many rags a household can use! Currently I have a big box of ancient clothes and holey cotton diapers that need to be recycled, but so far I’ve been unsuccessful at figuring out where to send them. I’m no seamstress, so converting them into something else is beyond my ability.

I’ll be thinking a lot about recycling over the next forty days as I try to reduce, repurpose, and reuse as many items as possible. I’ll let you know how it goes at the end of April.

Tags: Recycling | Zero Waste

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