By Nicole Meyers

Andreas Gursky. 99 Cent, 1999

In 2007, Colin Beavan embarked on a mission to reduce his carbon footprint in New York City. In his book No Impact Man, the Manhattanite documents his year-long crusade to lead an urban lifestyle that has impact on the environment. This means no fossil-fuel emitting transportation, no new purchases, no use of disposable items, and no takeout food or bottled water to avoid containers. Above all, this means NO waste. Beavan produced no trash for twelve months— He didn’t even use toilet paper.

In the beginning of his project, one of Beavan’s initial realizations was the amount of plastic waste his former lifestyle created. Between grocery bags, food containers, coffee cup lids, drink bottles, plastic containers and casing is so ubiquitous in our world that it’s very difficult to buy anything not encased in it, nonetheless made out of it. Beavan wasn’t able to buy cheese until he found a farmer that was able to cut off a slice from the original block and wrap it in paper. Bevan switches from plastic petroleum-derived diapers and opts for cotton tissues and cloths instead. He also starts packing a glass jar with him wherever he goes so he can drink tap water without using plastic cups.

If we want minimize our impact on environment, logical and effective sustainable legislation systems need to consider a full life cycle of plastic, from raw material extraction, production, consumption, and disposal. Plastics are made from oil extracted from the ground, which is then chemically processed to create the molded plastic product. Finished plastics are then sent to stores in an infinite variety of shapes depending on the product requested. Once the the product is discarded, then what happens? Oil-based plastics don’t degrade, but many types CAN be recycled. However, whether or not proper recycling occurs is a whole other problem. Single-use plastic products and throwaway food containers is the fastest growing form of packaging and the main source of oceanic pollution. Every year in the U.S., less than 14 percent of plastic packaging gets properly recycled, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The rest ends up in our oceans, where plastic pollution has become one of the largest threats to our marine ecosystems. Published in the journal Science in February 2015, a study conducted by a scientific working group at UC Santa Barbara’s National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) quantified the input of plastic waste from land into the ocean. The report concluded that every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans— and the rate is growing exponentially. In 2025, the annual input is estimated to be about twice greater.

Chris Jordan. Mixed Recycling Seattle, 2004

The United States has one of the lowest overall recycling rates of any developed nation. Our contaminated coastal lines are a testament to our inadequate recycling infrastructure. Several communities don’t have curbside recycling programs, and our fast food industries aren’t held responsible for providing recycling and composting bins for their customers. In contrast, European countries are held accountable for their packaging.

Recycling is required in all NYC apartment buildings, but not all are compliant with meeting recycling requirements. When buildings do abide by regulation, there still needs to be individual participation for recycling to work. Aside from making sure the proper infrastructure is offered, another huge problem is the discrepancies surrounding how to recycle and what needs to be recycled. We need to receive recycling education—a fundamental knowledge that is critical if we want to live in a sustainable society. Sorting plastic from paper recyclables leads to cross contamination between plants. Thus, people opt for “single stream” recycling, which ends up doubling contamination rates. Learning about what is and what isn’t recyclable is geographic, as communities have different rules and standards.

If you aren’t sure about your neighborhood’s protocol, visit www.iwanttoberecycled.org to find your local recycling information and the nearest recycling centers.

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