Plastics were first made in 1907 but became widely used in the 1960s, thus marking the beginning of our ‘disposable’ lifestyle. The incorporation of this material into our products makes financial and logistical sense for manufacturers and consumers as it is a cheap and versatile material. Unfortunately, because of plastic’s popularity, it has since become an environmental issue. This is also due in part to our ‘use once and throw away’ attitude, marking it to be an unsustainable material. We now produce more than 300 million tons of plastic a year; half of which are single-use plastics. Out of the 300 million, 8 million gets dumped into the ocean. So far we have created 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic, a number which is difficult to conceptualize. Imagine 1 billion elephants or twenty-five thousand empire state buildings and you’ll be on the right track. This ridiculously large amount is made more difficult to comprehend as many of us North Americans are shielded from the effects of plastics. In fact, most of these materials are being dumped in our oceans or placed in landfills. Plastics in the western world bring a new meaning to Not in My Backyard (NIMBY). There have been new ways to combat the rise of our dependency on single-use plastics, and the “Four Rs” is a method with a lot of impact.
The “Four Rs” include reduction, reuse, recycle and recover. Businesses all over the world have had to employ the “Four Rs” due to new regulations and public pressure. With the lack of space to dump their waste, they can no longer just manage waste; they must now consider prevention. Recycling is the process of converting our waste into reusable items. It is one of the four waste prevention techniques that people participate in.
The Canadian government has interpretations of what waste prevention looks like, and the regulations that are placed on Canadian corporations. Companies, whenever possible, have to reduce the amount of waste they create. If waste is made, the company should try to reuse the products if applicable. Recycling should be considered if the waste items cannot be reduced or reused. And if the product cannot be reduced, reused, or recycles, there can be the recovery of the waste. This is an empirical method to make companies’ initiatives more cost-effective.
However, we are not corporations that are trying to reduce the amount of packaging we use to make a singular product. We are people that are functioning in a world where life in plastic is not so fantastic. Plastic materials are hard to avoid, but we can find ways to reduce, reuse, recycle, and recover in our own day to day practices.
In Edmonton, this What Goes Where sheet summarizes what we can recycle and what can go to the Eco Stations. We have to note the importance of knowing exactly what can and cannot be recycled since improper recycling can lead to damaging of machinery/equipment. Little details like cleaning out a peanut butter container completely before tossing it in the recycling bin can change its ability to be recycled. You should remove the lids of coffee cups and water bottles because not all parts belong in a recycling bin. Also, checking the label of the container before recycling is super important. There are many variations of plastic, and they can't all be discarded in the same fashion.
At the moment, in Edmonton, single-use items like straws, plastic bags, and takeout containers are not accepted for recycling. There is no actual regulation as of yet of what items should be considered restricted, should be penalized, or eliminated. It is our role to try and make legislation that exists in other cities across Canada that will eliminate/restrict these single-use plastics.
Using recycling bins is not the only way that someone can recycle. As conscious buyers, we can choose to buy plastics that are made from recycled material, and meant for multi-use purposes. Going one step further, we can also avoid purchasing single use plastics altogether. This could include purchasing glass containers instead of plastic bags or opting for disposable bamboo toothbrushes instead of the traditional plastic options.
In Edmonton and other cities including Toronto, around 25% of items meant for the landfill are thrown into the recycling instead. Other regions of Canada, like Vancouver, have been able to reduce this number to 5%. It shows that proper recycling is possible to achieve as more people become aware of pressing environmental issues. Edmonton Waste Services has many resources that can help us become more environmentally friendly in our recycling endeavors.
If you are looking for information that will give you a more global perspective on how the recycling of plastics is handled around the world, listen to this episode of 99% Invisible by Radiotopia. This segment brings up important legislation that impacts the redistribution of North American recyclables to China.
Written by Lydia Mutoni
The 4Rs - reduction, reuse, recycling and recovery
A running list of action on plastic pollution
What Goes where?
7 Recycling Mistakes You’re Probably Making (Because You Can’t Always Trust The Recycle Symbol)
Tips: Top Ten Ways to Recycle
Let's Keep Talking Future of Waste for Residents