But listen up, we are enviro(ish)....and ish-ness is the most critical ingredient of this entire works. It means relieving yourself from the guilt of not being perfect and doing everything, all the time. And that brings me to recycling...
You see, there's this secret about recycling. Our waste stream is not created equal*. We know this because of a handy process called lifecycle assessment. It tells us the energy it takes to make a product, the energy all the way from getting raw materials out of the ground, to manufacture, to customer, to use, and to the end of life.
*actually the inequality of municipal waste collection and recycling in this country is abysmal....so it really is an unequal experience depending on where you live, but that's another post for another time.
What it tells us, is that materials are not created equally (duh), but I mean really...think about that. It tells us the ecological impacts of materials when/if they get into the environment at end of life, as well as energy it takes to recycle those materials. Which inherently means that there's some materials that have worse impacts when tossed into nature than others (obv)....and there's some materials that are too energy-intensive or degrade when trying to be recycled (true). On the flip side, it tells us there are some materials that are of utmost importance to recycle. You ready for a list of some of these? enviro(ish) peeps unite!
So picture this scenario: you have an item to dispose of in your hand, and there's no recycling can in sight. Maybe you are traveling, on a plane, or in a different city. Do you throw away or hold onto it until you can recycle? Ask yourself these three questions....
If a recycling container is not in the vicinity, however, and you have to decide what to do...ask yourself the following questions:
1) Is it made of metal? If so, you should try and recycle it even if it's inconvenient. Arguably, even if super inconvenient. The reasoning is simple....metals leach nasty things into the environment and metal takes a lot of energy to manufacture in the first place. Metals are also highly recyclable material (aka it can be easily melted down into the next product). So if you have an aluminum can in your hand, hanging on to make sure it's recycled saves 95% of the energy it takes to make a new one. Wow! That's an uber impactful small EverydayEco action, and might even earn you some money. And if you have old electronic devices or batteries? Make sure you hang onto them until they can be recycled in your local community...just like paint, they should never go into the waste stream anyways (You can usually find a drop-off for e-waste).
2) Is it made of plastic? If so, you should hang onto it if it can be recycled at your home, school or work. I've been "that person" who asks on a plane if the plastic bottle will get recycled. Always worth an ask! Plastic is a material that is far too common in our economy and unsustainable since it is made from fossil fuels, persists in our oceans and rivers for hundreds of years, and degrades when recycling the material. enviro(ish) has talked before about getting rid of one-time plastic water bottles, shopping bags....and even off your face (gross!) Point is, don't feel as guilty as metal...but try your best to recycle the plastics.
3) Is it made of paper or glass? If so, this goes into the "relieve yourself from guilt if you absolutely HAVE to throw it" category. It's basically not great, but I'm happy to report, not terrible either. (Again...the premise of this is that the recycling bin is not available nearby....if it's just a walk to your garage, don't be lazy! But I digress...) The reasoning is two fold:
First, neither of these materials will leach significantly horrible things into the environment if they wind up in a landfill. Paper is mostly wood fiber/pulp, and while there's some bleaching to make it white, it's relatively not as bad. (Note: given that paper is recycled 70% of the time, and that recycling paper saves not just energy but money, it's probably very weird for it not to be available near you). When it comes to glass, well, in case you didn't know it, clear glass is basically melted sand. From a materials standpoint, you can do a lot worse.
Second, the amount of energy saved from recycling paper or glass isn't as staggering as #1 and #2. Recycled paper is always net savings....but glass? The energy saved from recycling is slim...in part due to the weight (glass is heavy...which I'm reminded of every time I lug my empty wine bottles to the blue bin....). This is to say, local variables such as distance to recycling center and the type of furnace have a "say" in whether recycling glass really achieves net energy savings.
So hopefully this helps! Not to excuse you from trying to recycle, but to relieve the guilt if it's not available at the critical moment. Did you already know about these differences? Did this post help relieve your eco conscience?
(Exception: unless you live in South Sudan, in which case, enviro(ish) officially says you are ok to not recycle. Stay safe over there! XOXO :)