We don’t need to read another story about a whale with a stomach full of plastics or an overflowing landfill to convince us to put the brakes on waste. Every day we're confronted by dire realities surrounding the environment and climate change. But the good news is that there are simple ways to be part of the solution. Here are six suggestions for reducing waste, being a good environmental steward and making a big difference at the individual level.
Know the Rules, and Stop “Wishcycling”
Years of messaging have, at long last, penetrated the national consciousness. Americans are recycling on an unprecedented scale. Unfortunately, what most people are doing is “wishcycling” — putting items in the recycle bin that they wish were recyclable, whether they are or not. As a result, in part, of this trend, China imposed severe restrictions on what they’ll accept, rendering it extremely difficult to comply and leaving U.S. recycling companies scrambling to pick up the slack.
Understanding which items go where can be confusing, but knowing the rules is crucial for recycling. The phrase to remember is, “when in doubt, throw it out.” Some of the top non-recyclable offenders include anything with food or human waste (pizza boxes, napkins, tissues) along with “tanglers” — items like hoses, plastic bags and Christmas lights that can become entangled in the machines. The city provides resources, including a webpage called “What Do I Do With...?” where you can search for an item in question. Austin’s residential recycling collection service does accept all recyclable items without sorting, so all you need to do is check for those emblematic recycling arrows on the items you throw into the bin.
Break out of the Cardboard Box
There’s a place for almost anything you're ready to be rid of. Austin’s Recycle & Reuse Drop-Off Center accepts household chemicals, items that plug in, clothing and housewares, aerosol cans, batteries, tires, brush and yard trimmings. If the items they collect are still viable, they give them away to anyone who needs them. Check the city’s free ReUse store in Southeast Austin, located on the same site as the Drop-Off Center, for art supplies, cleaning products and automotive fluids, plus free mulch and reblended paint.
Recycle & Reuse is just one of many options for recycling unwanted items in town. Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore is a home improvement store that accepts and resells furniture, appliances, excess building materials and housewares. AGE of Austin will take viable health and medical equipment, Any Baby Can needs new and gently used kids items, Anthropos Arts is always looking for musical gear and Dress for Success outfits their clients with professional clothing and beauty products.
Think Twice Before Trashing Textiles
Whether they “spark joy” or not, don’t trash items of clothing or textiles. Textiles make up over 7 percent of the waste in U.S. landfills. Nearly 100 percent of all textiles are recyclable, but only 15 percent of consumer-used clothing is actually recycled. Some of this is due to the uptick in fast, inexpensive fashion, but it’s also due to lack of awareness around the issue. When buying clothes, instead of purchasing them new, consider thrifting or getting them from online sites like Poshmark and ThredUp.
Donating or selling items is always the best alternative to throwing them away. There are organizations that distribute donations or get them to the secondary recycling market. If an item is beyond repair or reuse, you can take it to the Recycle & Reuse Drop-Off Center for collection. Austin Resource Recovery had a partnership with Simple Recycling for curbside clothing collection, but the contract ended this past June. The City of Austin is currently working on reinstating the program with a new partner, but for now the program is on hold.
Advocate for Green Purchasing
Just as we’ve adjusted to looking at nutrition labels for calorie and sugar counts, we need to look at product labels to determine whether they are — or can be — recycled. Opting for a recycled or recyclable product helps create demand which, in turn, influences the industry at large.
Commit to only buying office supplies that are reusable or made from recycled materials. The process of recycling paper results in up to 74 percent less air pollution than making it new. While you’re at it, encourage your business or employer to make the same commitment. Being an advocate and presenting environmentally friendly alternatives to standard practices is an easy win.
If you’re exhausted from examining labels, become a brand loyalist. Brands like Adidas, Allbirds, Outdoor Voices and Patagonia are incorporating recycled materials into fashion. Several international companies, including PepsiCo, Unilever and L’Oréal, have pledged to work toward more environmentally friendly packaging. And local businesses like Confituras Little Kitchen and Casey's New Orleans Snowballs use 100 percent compostable serviceware. Knowing which companies are committed to sustainable practices can help you make a responsible purchase decision.
Compost Like a Cool Kid
Composting can reduce landfill waste by up to 30 percent, and all you need is a kitchen container and/or a compost bin. You can compost anything that has recently been grown — this is especially important because food waste releases methane, a gas that is over 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide, as it decomposes in landfills. If you’re composting for your own household, don’t include meats, which can spoil and become a smelly problem. However, the City of Austin’s compost program accepts all food scraps, including meat, as well as yard scraps and soiled paper like burger bags and pizza boxes. The major obstacle here is inertia — remembering to put leftover and questionable produce in your compost instead of in the trash.
Compost will evolve into nutrient-rich soil that can benefit your plants and garden. You can compost indoors with a worm bin or transfer your scraps outdoors if you have a yard. The other option is to take advantage of the city’s compost pickup service if it is available in your neighborhood (Austin Resource Recovery plans to add all curbside customers to the service by 2020). Anything green and growing benefits from the natural fertilizer, and the environment will benefit from your reduced carbon "foodprint."
Adopt Small Changes at Home
Waste isn’t only about what is going in the trash; it’s also about excessive use of any kind. Humans are creatures of habit, but changing those habits — even a little bit — can make a big difference.
• Decrease energy consumption: Shift to energy-saving light bulbs, program the thermostat to not run as often while you’re gone and add ceiling fans.
• Reduce disposables: Use reusable grocery and lunch bags, switch to glass food storage and carry a reusable water bottle.
• Eat your veggies: Hop on the “Meatless Monday” train to conserve water and reduce greenhouse gases.
• Buy responsibly: Purchase refurbished electronics, donate working items and recycle the rest.
• Power up: Choose rechargeable batteries — most can be recharged up to 1,000 times.
• Opt out: Get less garbage mail by visiting optoutprescreen.com and DMAChoice.org.
Which Can Does It Go In?
|Aluminum Foil||Recycle clean, balled foil|
|Bagged Recyclables||Remove from bag and recycle,
put bag in trash
|Batteries||Recycle & Reuse Drop-off Center|
|Cups with Plastic or
|Extra Recycling||If your recycling can is full,
place recyclables in a box next to
it for pickup
|Food Containers (Paper)||Compost|
|Food Containers (Plastic)||Recycle|
|Flourescent Light Bulbs||Recycle & Reuse Drop-off Center|
|Garden Hoses, Rope,
Leashes, Wire & String
|Toner and Inkjet Cartridges||Recycle & Reuse Drop-off Center|
|Ziploc Bag||Some grocery stores will accept
ziploc and plastic bags, as well
as plastic films. Click here to
find where you can drop them.
By Kelly Stocker • Illustration by Jenna Northcutt, Robuart and Ssstocker