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Trash Talk

Updated: Jan 16

Hiking trail in Bariloche, Argentina

I've been thinking a lot about trash lately. First there was this revelation: wet cardboard and paper cannot be recycled. Wait, what?! Since I came across this mentioned in a Grid magazine editorial, and since I have faith in their reporting, (I am an occasional contributor) I had some reassessing to do. I’d previously considered myself a model of good waste management; at least that's what I've told my family. But I've been doing it wrong—for years. I didn't want to accept this, but I found multiple sources confirming my recycling failures.

The facts are these: wet cardboard and paper cannot be properly separated during the sorting process, and therefore, gets dumped in with trash. I think I actually did know this at one point in my life, but when a friend I’d always considered conscientious told me it didn't matter and pointed out that the recycling process involves water, I changed my routine. Now I know better. It does matter.

We don't ask you to clean, we just ask you not to dirty.

Another reason I've been thinking about trash is that I keep stumbling over it during my local rambles through the woods. It’s particularly glaring now because I'm recently home from a trip to Argentina, where we encountered a different attitude. In Bariloche, Argentina, the northern part of Patagonia, we hiked one pristine trail after another. It turns out that Patagonia, a large mountainous region extending through southern Argentina and Chile, has been protected and nurtured by environmentalists. Despite what one might see in the cities, folks visiting the wilderness areas pack their trash out. We found many fellow hikers, but no garbage.

I don't recall the last time I walked anywhere in the US where I didn't feel the need to pick up litter. Even in our national parks, the bins overflow and the garbage nestles in among trail-side flowers. Why? People say our parks are "over-loved." In my book love does not equal litter. However, the parks are used extensively and visitors’ trash overwhelms the system.

It's not all bad news in the US. The Zero Waste movement has been gaining some traction here. One stellar example is the Subaru auto manufacturing plant in Lafayette, Indiana. With encouragement from its Japanese parent company, Fuji Heavy Industries, they have been operating at zero waste for years.

“Subaru Indiana met its five-year goal within two years — and became the first U.S. auto plant to achieve zero-landfill status. “We have sent nothing to a landfill since May 4, 2004,” says senior executive vice president Tom Easterday. “I like to tell people if they go to Starbucks for a cup of coffee, once they throw away that cup, they’ve put more into a landfill than we have in the last 13 years.””

Subaru of Indiana and other plants like it have shared their strategies, and its beginning to catch on. So could we be more like Subaru in our own homes? Everywhere we turn, we're surrounded by products that will end up in the waste stream. We're often told to pack reusable shopping bags and carry refillable water bottles, but sometimes we forget. Sometimes it's hard to avoid the proffered plastic bottle a well-meaning friend tries to hand you in a moment of need. We might tell ourselves it will be recycled, but will it really? According to Grid, in recent years Philadelphia’s recycling rate has dropped to 8% after hitting a high of 21% under a previous administration.

On the individual level, we can make a difference if we get the single-use plastics out of our lives. When someone offers you that plastic bottle of water, show them your refillable water bottle. Don't leave the house without it! Also, consider storing a cloth shopping bag in your handbag, work kit, or car.

Tamela Trussell of Move Past Plastic recommends that people can begin by taking note of the amount of plastic in their grocery carts, and then try and eliminate one item per week. "Think about purchasing natural clothing, buy in bulk, don't buy individually wrapped items like yogurt, fruit, or Lunchables. Reuse glass jars for food storage, and make your own yogurt," she said. You can find more suggestions at the link below.

Finally, if you reside in a city like Philadelphia that needs to improve its recycling record, put pressure on your local government. Like most things, a sustainable waste process comes down to good management.

And going forward I will keep my cardboard boxes out of the rain, and I will be mindful of the plastics in my grocery cart. What do you do at your home to manage your trash? Please feel free to pass along your tips!

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