Thursday, August 2, 2012

Reducue, Reuse, Recycle - Plastics

My trip to the recycling center yesterday got me thinking about the amount of waste that we recycle. You might think that my concern is that we aren't recycling enough, but while I do have some concern that we are trashing some items that could be recycled, the larger concern is with the amount of waste we are generating in the first place. The phrase reduce, reuse, recycle, comes from the waste hierarchy, which means those are the preferred actions, in order or desirability. I thought it was time I took a look at our waste generation and disposable to see how well we are following the waste hierarchy.

I had originally planned for this post to cover all types of recyclables, but quickly realized that there was far too much information to be covered in a single post. I considered a couple of different options, but finally decided that it probably made the most sense to just split the post into a couple of separate posts. This post will focus on plastics.

Plastic - Type 1

The Type 1 plastic (PETE) that we most often recycle is in the form of plastic bottles. Most of these are from bottled water or sports drinks, with the occasional soda bottle. From time to time there may also be another type of plastic container mixed in, such as those strawberries are packaged in at grocery stores.

Reduce - The most obvious target for reduction in this category is to stop, or at least cut back on, buying bottled water. At home I drink tap water and Andrea drinks lemonade, which she makes from a mix. When we are on the road, though, we tend to buy bottled water. I drink a lot of water, and its not uncommon for me to go through 2 or 3 bottles during a trip to London, Berea, or Richmond, especially if its hot out. Sometimes we do pack a cooler with water from home, but even then we use bottled water. I need to at least start taking one of my metal bottles filled with water with me on trips, so I can drink from it during the initial drive. Usually, though, after one stop the water gets hot from sitting in the car, so I'll still end up buying bottled water. The possible solution there is to start packing the cooler with some of our small metal bottles, and be sure to put the bottle back in the cooler anytime we stop. The same solution could be applied to the sports drink bottles, as Andrea will often buy those to drink on the road. If she, instead, takes lemonade from home we might avoid the generation of a couple more plastic bottles each trip. I'm not as concerned with the quantity of soda bottles, and we only have a few of those. Aside from cutting back on the amount I drink, the only other option I see for reducing is to buy cans instead of bottles, which will still have to be recycled. The last item, the berry containers, could be avoided by either buying berries at the farmers market, so they would come in a different container, or grow our own, which we are in the process of doing.

Reuse - We use to be good about saving and reusing water bottles. What we found, though, is that we were using significantly more bottles than we cold reuse. As long as we have enough laying around to fill the small cooler, there isn't much sense in us saving more. If we begin using metal bottles in the cooler more often, we won't even have a need for the few we have saved. I suppose this means that we need to come up with a different method for reusing the bottles that we do accumulate.

Recycle - My initial thought was that we are recycling everything that we can in this category. I even take empty bottles home from restaurants, so they can be recycled. Then I realized that there have been a few cases where I've thrown away a bottle at the office. I normally buy a soda to drink in the afternoons when I'm there, and sometimes the machine is out of my preferred type. When this happens I'll run to a nearby gas station, or if I've thought to check ahead of time, stop during lunch, to buy a soda. I prefer buying cans when available, but often they are not, so I'll buy a bottle. In these cases, I have thrown the bottle away, rather than bringing it home to recycle. This is something that I need to watch, and be sure I do not continue to do.

Plastic - Type 2

The Type 2 plastic (HDPE) that we recycle is almost entirely in the form of bottles and/or jugs. Most often these are either milk jugs or the containers that vinegar comes in. On my recent trip to the recycling center we had one of each of these. There were also a couple over over the counter medicine bottles that were of this type.

Reduce - We try to reduce the number of milk jugs we have, not by drinking less milk, but buy purchasing it in reusable glass bottles. Unfortunately the only sources we are aware of for buying milk in this form are the Good Foods Market in Lexington and Happy Meadows Natural Foods in Berea. When we purchase milk at the local grocery store, or in London, our only option is to buy it in a plastic jug. I don't know if there are alternative ways to purchase vinegar or not. I don't think that reducing the amount of it we use is a good option, as Andrea uses vinegar in various cleaning products around the house as alternatives to chemical cleaners. We'll have to do some research to see if vinegar can be purchased in either glass bottles, or at least in larger containers that would therefore use less plastic per gallon of vinegar. As for the medicine bottles, I'm really not concerned with those as we do not have a lot of them. I do take a couple OTC medications regularly, so we may have 1 or 2 bottles per month to recycle, but this is of minimal impact compared to some of the other plastics we consume.

Reuse - We do not currently reuse very many of the Type 2 plastic bottles or jugs. Not long after we moved here there was a problem with the municipal water, and so we were buying drinking water in jugs. We did save those, and later used some of them for planting tomatoes, which didn't turn out very well. The plastic deteriorated fairly quickly in that situation and ended up being thrown in the trash after one season of use. I do have one vinegar jug that I use to freeze water in. Its nothing we consume, but we use it sometimes as ice in the big cooler, and I sometimes sit it in front of a box fan to generate cool air when its really hot in my office.

Recycle - We do a good job of ensuring that the milk and vinegar jugs are recycled. I'm not quite as confident about the other types of bottles, but I believe that few, if any, get thrown in the trash instead of being recycled.

Plastic - Types 3-7

I am less clear as to which items we recycle that fall into which of these categories as the recycling center does not require them to be separated. Since there is a single bin for these 5 types, I rarely pay attention to which items are of which type, especially since Andrea is the one who sorts the recycling and I normally just have to dump it in the bin. Yesterday I did pay attention to what we had, and the only items for that bin were a couple of containers that the Carnation Breakfast Essentials powder that I use for my smoothies came in. They are Type 5, which is Polypropylene (PP). I do know that the containers that Andrea's lemonade mix come in also fall into one of these categories, but I'm not sure which. I had not realized until recently that styrofoam can be recycled, as it is a Type 6, which is Polystyrene (PS).

Reduce - Since we normally do not have very many Type 3-7 plastics, the potential for reduction here isn't as great as with other categories. There are always ways to reduce, though, and any reduction is a positive. The most common item we have in this category is the container from Andrea's lemonade. Unless they start packaging it differently, or selling it in larger containers, I don't expect to reduce this anytime soon. Since this is pretty much the only thing that Andrea drinks, its not practical to reduce the amount. I might be able to eliminate the Carnation Breakfast Essentials containers by switching to a different brand of powdered drink mix for my smoothies. I have been thinking of trying Spiru-Tein as an alternative, which comes in paper and cardboard rather than plastic

Reuse - This is one category where we do a good job of reusing. Andrea has used a lot of the lemonade mix containers for starting seeds in. They also make good containers for holding other stuff. I can see using them for storage of small items such as screws and other fasteners in the shed if I ever have so many that my current solution isn't sufficient. I'm not sure how well the containers might work for long term storage of food in the freezer or dry goods in the pantry, although I assume that glass is the better option.

Recycle - I am certain that there are items of these types that we end up throwing in the trash that could be recycled. The common items always get recycled, but, like styrofoam, I suspect that there are some items that can be recycled which we never even think to check. There are other items, that I wonder about, such as packing peanuts. Obviously they aren't marked with the recycling symbol, but since styrofoam is recyclable, would these be as well? Having said this, I'm not entirely sure that the 3-7 plastics are recycled through the London center. They do accept them, but it is my understanding that 3-6 types are very expensive to recycle, so it is rarely done. Since Type 7 is "other" I'm not sure if those ever get recycled. Since the recycling center does collect these types, my guess is that whatever they do with them is likely preferable to just throwing them in the trash, although it is possible that at the end of the day they just send them to the landfill like anyone else would do.

I will be doing at least one more post in which I will cover the other types of materials that we commonly recycle, and discuss how we might reduce the amounts of those that we have.

Edit: Andrea reminded me that whether or not packing peanuts are accepted at our recycling center isn't really important for us, anyway, as we always reuse them. She either uses them when she ships things, or if we have a lot and aren't going to use them, she donates them to some business that will use them. 

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