Thursday, June 21, 2012

Step Nine: Set Up Your Recycling System

For this post I'm going to try something different. I find it's very easy for me to rave about zero waste and all the ways of going about it, but I worry that it makes my writing a chore to slog through and that I'm alienating my readers because they look at it and automatically respond TL;DR (too long; didn't read).

So here is the short version of this post, followed by the long version. Kindly tell me which version you liked better, and why, in the comments so that I can better edit my writing for all you budding little greenies. Also, how many pictures do you like in the average post (none this time, sorry, my camera is on the fritz)?





The Short Version: Set Up Your Recycling System

In my quest for zero waste, I don't consider things which can be recycled indefinitely, or which are biodegradable at the end of their recycling lifetime, to be garbage. I think that managed responsibly and used in moderation, things like cardboard, canned food, and glass bottles are fine. Because of this, I need to have a system in place to make sure these things get recycled. Having a system ensures that even when I'm feeling tired or lazy, all I have to do is put something in the right bin, and it will get taken care of.

Eventually I'd like to build a rack to hold matching canvas bags, with a box at the bottom, and a compost bin on the side. Sort of like this Ikea version, but made of ecologically sound materials. For now I have a rag-tag collection of old wastebaskets and beat-up gardening pots. It's not very pretty, but it works.

I have a bin for paper, cardboard, metal, plastic (I'm the only member of my house to fully commit to zero waste, everyone else is holding out until I show them that Gatorade isn't a necessity), glass, and compostable items. I also have two boxes; one for donation items, the other for odd bits and bobs that can be used in art projects, like spent gift cards, scraps of yarn, and found earrings.

When any of the bins get full, I pack up the contents and take them to the nearest business or organization that recycles that material. I empty the compost bin often, and find it's very handy to have a whole mess of cardboard just waiting to supplement my pile, should it ever run low on good carbon sources. I always rinse out food containers so my recycling doesn't become a haven for pests and curious dogs, and I make sure to write anything of value I'm donating on the side of the thrift store box so I'll remember to get the tax credit.

Overall, having a recycling system lets me save time and keep my house tidier, though I have had to re-sort things once in a while when other members of my household slip-up. This could be solved by clear labels, in both words and pictures, and a more uniform set of bins. I think I see a summer project.





The Long Version: Set Up Your Recycling System

Though some may disagree with me, I'm of the mindset that things which can be recycled indefinitely are okay to use, so long as I make sure to buy the recycled versions of these products to begin with, advocate actively to make recycled versions the standards in these industries, and avoid buying products than can be replaced by reusable counterparts reasonably. This means I don't use paper towels, canned tomato sauce, or  subscribe to print magazines, but I do keep a roll of recycled toilet paper handy, indulge in canned clams occasionally, and write numerous e-mails requesting all-recycled packaging and components.

Since I have recyclables to take care of, and since curb-side pick-up is not an option in my current apartment (the city offers it, the landlords just don't participate), I find the process of recycling is made much easier by having a designated recycling station in my home. When any of the bins are full, I just cart them to the local business or organization which recycles those particular materials. I even have bins designated specifically for thrift shop donations, craft project reuse, and possible-to-compost materials.

Currently I use a rag-tag collection of old trash cans, garden planters, and beat-up kitchen containers to separate my recyclables, but as my family grows, I think I slim it down to a uniform system with clearly designated labels.

I realize that many communities (mine included) have single-stream recycling programs, but when possible I like to participate in programs that require you to separate your waste. This creates less-contaminated recycling material, which in turn encourages more efficient and more prevalent recycling. Additionally, this helps me examine my cast-offs easily to see if there's a more sustainable alternative I could be using.

Using these Ikea bags as inspiration, I think I'll eventually make my own recycling station out of canvas with a wooden support frame. Of course, these bins would work great as well, especially in a home with limited floor space, though they seem a little frustrating to empty. The most important thing though, is to set up a system that everyone in your home can understand. If you entertain frequently, perhaps lids with bold labels could help guests from putting a soda can in with the newspapers. For homes with preschool aged children, labeling your recycling station with pictures instead of words could help little ones know where to put that empty juice bottle. If you live with chronically disorganized people, the most fool-proof solution (and what I often resort to with my husband) is to have only one small trash can accessible in the house; after they throw garbage in, you sort recyclables and composting out. This last option is work-intensive, but I find it the easiest, and most tension-free, solution in my home.

Two key components of my cast-off sorting system are boxes for donations and reusables. Almost always, while decluttering, I'll find something I don't use anymore, but which could still be useful to someone else. Rather than deal with these objects individually, I just put them in a cardboard box. When the box is full, off it goes to the thrift store. Likewise, in my various activities I find little bits of material that have the potential to be useful, just not immediately so. I have an old shoe-box I use for little bits of yarn, fabric, or embellishments. In my old apartment, I used to tie these to a chain-link fence as colorful reminders of the little bits of waste that slip through the cracks. It made for an interesting, purposeful collage, and I very much enjoyed making it. Now I just use the scraps to decorate current projects I'm doing (old beads for doll eyes, etc.), and when the box begins to overflow I donate it all to a local preschool, where the kiddies use up the scraps in their craft projects far faster than I could.

As always, composting is my first choice for waste, and I do all I can to make sure that what refuse I do create will biodegrade  easily. Eating a diet with lots of vegetables and other unprepared foods provides plenty of material for the compost bucket, buying only used clothing made of natural fabrics (like cotton, wool, and linen) ensures that I'll have the lightest impact with my sartorial choices and can confidently compost my garments when I'm done with them, and accepting only take-out food in biodegradable containers means I can take a night off from cooking without harming the planet. I find that sorting my recyclables additionally helps with my composting, as it's easy to dump the cardboard and paper bins into my compost pile whenever it's lacking in a source of carbon.

In short, setting up a sorting and recycling system in my home makes it easy to responsibly handle my recyclables, monitor the amount of waste I generate, and keep on top of removing unneeded things from my home. Maintaining a good system is like writing things down; it helps keep me prepared for life and lets me throw away as little as possible.


First time reading about a hundred steps to zero waste? Go here for the introduction and index.

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