Americans generated more than 262 million tons of trash in 2015, including nearly 35 million tons of plastics. The plastics alone could fill about 2.7 million typical garbage trucks.
Of all of that trash, only about one-fourth was recycled. And plastics made up only about 5 percent of the recycled trash.
Unfortunately, we’re discovering that not all of the plastics and other garbage that are supposed to be recycled are actually being recycled.
Recent media reports shed light on a horrifying reality: Fed up with being the “world’s garbage dump,” China now refuses to import most of the millions of tons of plastics and other trash that it at one time accepted for recycling. As a result, a lot of that waste is being sent to other countries that, in many cases, are ill-equipped to recycle it.
“For years, America sold millions of tons of used yogurt cups, juice containers, shampoo bottles and other kinds of plastic trash to China to be recycled into new products,” NPR reported in March 2019. “And it wasn’t just the U.S. Some 70 percent of the world’s plastic waste went to China — about 7 million tons a year.”
In light of the Chinese ban on most imports of recyclables, what can we do to cut the amount of plastics that are bound for landfills or are headed for countries that can’t adequately handle our tossed-away plastics? What follows are nine ways to accomplish that.
1. Emphasize reduce and reuse.
You’ve no doubt heard the mantra “Reduce, reuse, recycle.” Too often, we focus on the “recycle” part while overlooking the “reduce” and “reuse parts,” says Delaware environmentalist Maya K. van Rossum, author of “The Green Amendment: Securing Our Right to a Healthy Environment.”
“When it comes to plastics, reduce and reuse are key, as recycling often doesn’t actually happen and brings with it its own set of harms,” van Rossum says.
To embrace the first two R’s — reduce and reuse — van Rossum recommends stocking your home with:
- Reusable coffee cups. Disposable coffee cups often are coated with plastic. Many coffee shops offer discounts if you bring your own reusable mug or cup.
- Reusable straws. Metal straws can replace plastic straws. By one estimate, Americans use 500 million plastic straws every day.
- Cloth shopping bags instead of plastic shopping bags. Some stores provide discounts when you bring your own reusable bags. One plastic bag can take 1,000 years to degrade, according to the Green Education Foundation.
- Reusable water bottles. “Refilling a water bottle from your faucet or a bottle-filling station is free,” van Rossum says, “whereas buying all those plastic bottles of water is costly for your bank account and the earth.”
- Dishware rather than plastic containers to hold leftover or takeout food.
2. Look for recycled goods.
Sustainability consultant Josh Prigge, host of the “Sustainable Nation” podcast, suggests buying products made of recycled content or sold in recycled packaging. “We do not have much of a demand in our society for products made from recycled content,” he says.
To boost demand, request that products you buy that are currently available only in plastic be made from 100 percent recycled material, Prigge recommends.
3. Know the rules.
Prigge urges us to understand local recycling requirements and to buy only those items that your local waste management provider accepts for recycling.
4. Be a recycling advocate.
Encourage stores and other public places that don’t have recycling programs to begin recycling plastics and other waste, Prigge says. This way, at least some trash will be diverted from landfills.
“We also need businesses and facilities to understand the value of zero-waste operations,” he says. “The money that they spend on materials being picked up and sent to the landfill can drastically be reduced by assessing their operations, establishing goals to increase landfill diversion rates, implement comprehensive recycling programs, and look to eliminate waste before it’s being created by working with their suppliers to eliminate unnecessary materials and wasteful practices.”
Cities like New York City; San Francisco; San Diego; Seattle; Los Angeles; Asheville, North Carolina; and Austin, Texas, have launched initiatives to achieve zero-waste status.
5. Avoid buying frozen foods.
Most packaging for frozen foods is plastic, according to the Green Education Foundation. “Even those [packages] that appear to be cardboard are coated in a thin layer of plastic,” the group says.
6. Give up plastic utensils.
Ask restaurants to skip the plasticware. Instead, rely on reusable metal utensils, even if you have to tote them around. Americans use an estimated 100 million plastic utensils every day, according to the Audubon Society.
7. Go fresh.
Squeeze fresh juice rather than buying juice in plastic bottles. “It’s healthier and better for the environment,” the Green Education Foundation says.
8. Make your own household cleaning products.
Homemade cleaning products remove the need to buy cleaning products in plastic bottles, according to the Green Education Foundation. Plus, they’re less toxic than traditional store-bought products.
The Reef Relief environmental organization suggests mixing up cleaning products made of ingredients like baking soda and vinegar.
9. Use cloth diapers.
An estimated 7.6 billion pounds of plastic-heavy disposable diapers are thrown away each year in the U.S., according to the Green Education Foundation. Cloth diapers can be washed and reused.
“We fill a Super Bowl-size hole every day with disposal diapers that will leach toxins into the environment for centuries to come,” Reef Relief says.
Editors note: Wasting food isn’t necessarily intentional. Sometimes letting a case of spinach rot or a cucumber go bad is simply a result of oversight. But if you’re lucky enough to find items in your fridge that are “on the edge,” opt for these zero-waste recipes to avoid throwing out food and money.