Our project has a two-fold mission: supporting neighbors relying on food pantries AND reducing the impact of disposable bags on the environment.
Recycling can be confusing so it is important to have some "go to" resources to help you make the best choices possible.
First, let's talk terms. As part of our quest to understand the green movement, we contacted several greenish folks to better understand the words that we use, specifically
The results varied quite a bit, but that’s one reason we like “reupcypuruse” – it focuses on doing SOMETHING. Ideally, we reduce original consumption, period. The items we do consume, we reuse as much as possible. When they are past reuse, we find a new purpose – be it rag, jewelry or tote bag.
I personally like the term “repurpose” because it has the root word “purpose” and I think that’s an important concept. Items should have purpose and we should put thought into the whole chain of consumption. Are we buying stuff for a purpose? Can we find a new purpose for it? Can someone else find a purpose for it? Then, finally, can we recycle the materials so it can be turned into something new with yet another purpose?
Recycling in the sense of reusing our items until there was no possible use left is a cultural value that goes back through human time. Recycling as we now know it began in 1884. Here's a little chart that explains its history.
Recycling is a good tool, but its not foolproof. For example, even the chemical industry finds that we only recycle about 3-5% of our plastic bags and 10% of our paper bags even though those are theoretically some of the easiest items to recycle. If you eliminate the bags reused (cat litter, trash, etc), there are still a lot of bags that simply exist somewhere.
For now, we are going to focus on recycling in a broad sense - what do you do with your stuff when you no longer use it or need it?
General Recycling Info for City of Pittsburgh neighborhoods.
What about your municipality? Call or visit the website. Things change as technology changes. And you can recycle as many items as you like - you may simply need to find a way to transport them to a recycling drop-off. Construction Junction in Point Breeze is an official City recycling center - but anyone can use it. The key is to make sure you are informed about what you can recycle.
Some frequently asked "Can I recycle this?" topics ...
Plastic bags - over 90 drop off spots in a five county region. Consider donating to a local soup kitchen, shelter, animal welfare organization. Reusing a bag to scoop poop or line a trash can isn't really recycling - it still ends up in the landfill. Consider alternatives or at least how you can reuse that one bag as many times as possible. You cannot include plastic bags in your curbside recycling. Yes, they use bags to collect the recycling, but they do not recycle bags. The machinery is not designed to manage the flimsy material.
Plastic lids and caps - Aveda's store in Ross Park Mall accepts rigid plastic lids. Please click the link for more details. They use the lids as material to produce their own lids - this is actually great because it saves them money on virgin material and gives them an incentive to continue offering this resource. They've been doing this since 2007.
Styrofoam - While some regions, like Philadelphia, do offer curbside recycling for styrofoam, most do not. Pittsburgh does not. You have three choices: find some new use for it, add it to the landfill or don't buy it. Patronize shippers who use sustainable packing materials - even paper and cardboard are better.
Batteries - technology has made recycling batteries expensive. At this point, you should touch base with the Pennsylvania Resources Council and save your batteries for a hard to recycle event. Batteries Plus still accepts your batteries.
Everything Else - Earth911.com has a nifty search feature you can use to find a recycling center for pretty much anything, anywhere. I use this on vacations to find out what they recycle.
- Advocating in your municipality for more recycling. Or asking a local business to collect one specific item. Does your local coffee house recycle newspapers and magazines? If they offered to do that, would you volunteer to sort and transport them?
- Combining trips. I collect plastic bags in a sturdy 13 gallon bag and lids in a 5 gallon bucket. When I have a full load, I put them in my car to include on a planned trip to the store/mall. I also ask my neighbors to collect these items and offer to transport them.
- Contamination is a BAG thing. Recycling generates revenue, but there are many costs that we don't see - labor, machinery, sorting time, etc. If you put something in your local recycling that is a "maybe" item ("maybe they'll take the lid off my bottle and recycle it") you are probably wrong. They will just toss the entire item and the environment loses. Some places do sort very carefully - others don't have the staff and time to do that or they have such a quantity of items to sort, that's its not cost effective.
- There's no such thing as a free lunch. Don't be lulled by offer to recycle technology, paint or building supplies for "free" -- be sure that the organization is reputable and being a good neighbor. There are modest fees for local groups to recycle your items and that's because they are being responsible.
- Buy Recycled. Look for goods and items that are made from recycled material - from copier paper to deck materials to furniture. There has to be a demand for these products in order for "the industry" to continue developing technologies to recycle. Yes, it may cost more, but there are benefits.
Recycling is a good step in the "three R" process, but it is not an end solution. Recycling is about diverting an object from the landfill - not merely delaying its arrival. It requires some effort because we are a consumption culture and there are lots of rules and regulations.
In future columns, we'll explore local resources for reuse and the very intimidating idea of reducing. Please feel free to share your recycling tips, tricks, and suggestions. We encourage you to ask questions - if we don't know the answer, we'll ask our partners.
The Pittsburgh Tote Bag Project collects new and gently used tote bags for distribution to the region's food pantries. To "recycle" our tweets, we have a feature called "Links you can (re)Use" every Friday on our blog.