Americans produce a substantial amount of garbage. Washingtonians specifically create an average of 6.9 pounds of waste per person per day, according to the Department of Ecology. We’re pretty good about recycling, though: 44% of Washington’s municipal solid waste was recycled in 2016. Reducing the amount of waste disposed of in a landfill, recycling or composting facility not only benefits the environment by saving resources and minimizing greenhouse gas emissions, but can save your household money.
Decades ago during World War II, Americans were encouraged to save materials and collect scrap metal. Things were mostly reused or repaired and very little was thrown out. Soon after, though, the ease and convenience of new packaging and cheap products that could be tossed created a throw-away society. How to get back to this era of reducing, reusing, recycling and repairing can seem daunting to some.
Though studies show that people age 65 and older are more likely than those age 18-34 to believe recycling is the responsible thing to do, many people simply do not know what can or cannot be recycled. This has led to the concept of ‘wishful recycling,’ the process of tossing things in the recycling bin when we aren’t exactly sure it can be recycled, but hoping that it ultimately will be (which is often is not the case).
Consider the minute details of your life and where you might have room to reduce the waste you produce and receive. Do you receive paper bills in the mail that you could switch to receiving by email? Do you take a sandwich in a disposable plastic bag to work every day instead of considering reusable wrapping? The small plastics and paper used in everyday life builds up over time.
How to recycle: Even if you make your best effort in reducing the number of products you purchase and use, you will still have some items to recycle. It can seem pretty simple, but according to the King County Solid Waste Division, over half of materials disposed of in King County could have been recycled. Conversely, half of what is sent to recycling facilities are ultimately disposed of because it cannot actually be recycled or the items are soiled (such as food containers not cleaned out or leftover liquids in containers).
- Learn what can be recycled: the basics of what you can put in your recycling bin falls into a few categories: clean cardboard, steel and aluminum cans, glass, plastics, and mixed paper.
- Learn what can’t be recycled: This means that you cannot recycle plastic bags (such as the ones you take home from the grocery store and Ziploc sandwich bags). You can, however, bring plastic bags back to retail stores that accept them back for reuse (go here for a list of locations). Lead batteries, light bulbs, needles and anything soiled with food or liquid reside, such as soiled paper like disposable coffee cups and pizza boxes cannot be recycled.
- Don’t know where to dispose of something? The King County Solid Waste Division has a searchable list that provides information on how and where to dispose of various commercial and residential materials. Go here for the extensive list.
- Rinse and dry: Recycling soiled food containers is one of the biggest wasteful mistakes made by Washingtonians. Rather than tossing that sour cream or yogurt carton straight in the bin, take a minute to rinse the container thoroughly, then leave it to dry. Anything left with residue in the recycling will be disposed of and end up in a landfill. Residue like liquids left in beverage bottles can also turn other recyclables like cardboard and paper moldy.
- Services available: Curbside recycling pickup is available throughout the greater King County region. Waste Management (1-800-592-9995), Republic Services (206-682-9735) and Recology (206-859-6700) offer recycling and composting services in the area, or check with your local provider.
BYOB: Bring your own bag, thermos, straw, etc. One of the simplest ways to reduce the amount of plastic in your home is by not bringing home those disposable plastic grocery bags every time you go shopping. Though they can often be used as small garbage bags, dog waste bags, etc., an abundance is unnecessary. This includes produce bags! It might not come to mind at first, but reusable cloth or mesh produce bags are a quick way to reduce the amount of trash in your bin. If you go to your local coffee shop regularly, consider bringing a thermos or reusable iced drink tumbler and ask your barista to use that instead of a disposable cup. Most businesses even offer a small discount for bringing your own cup! If you make tea regularly, consider reusable loose-leaf tea infusers rather than disposable plastic or paper tea bags.
Much of household waste comes from the preparation and serving of food. However, there are a growing number of reusable and environmentally-friendly alternatives to preparing and storing food. Get creative with it! Try using tupperware rather than Ziploc bags, beeswax wrap rather than plastic saran wrap, and rubber bands to hold containers and packages closed. Beeswax wrap has especially become popular; It is a reusable, pliable sheet of wax-covered cotton that can be hand-washed after using to keep foods fresh (similar to plastic cling wrap).
As for food scraps and paper packaging, consider a composting service; according to the Department of Ecology, up to 43% of residential waste in Washington could be composted. Save money by utilizing food waste: use vegetable peels to make your own veggie broth and fruit peels to make homemade all-purpose cleaner. A quick search on the internet boasts a whole world of recipes and instructions for making natural glass cleaners, toilet cleaners, all-purpose counter cleaners, etc. It might go something like this: collect your citrus rinds and peels in a jar and fill it up with white vinegar. Let it sit for a couple weeks then strain it into a spray bottle. Dilute with a bit of water and make your counter shine. Look out for farmer’s markets before the season ends. Shopping local reduces the waste used to transport and package foods.
In addition to reducing and recycling your waste, staying updated with programs and events is a way to take direct action in minimizing waste. One program aimed towards reducing waste in landfills will even fix your broken items that would otherwise be thrown out. King County-sponsored repair events welcome you to bring in your household appliances such as vacuums, furniture, computers, blenders, clothing, etc. Look for dates and locations by visiting www.kingcounty.gov and searching ‘King County sponsored repair events,’ then click on the first link.
A local nonprofit focused on the Clean Water Act, the Puget Soundkeeper Alliance, encourages citizens to educate themselves and get involved. For example: if you’re taking a walk and see some trash, take it upon yourself to dispose of it.
“You may not be the one who is disposing of the trash carelessly, but it is I think part of our duty to pick up the trash we see when we're going on walks,” Puget Soundkeeper Stewardship Coordinator Kristin Holschbach said. “That's really a small thing that could go a long way.”
Plastics especially are harmful to marine animals. It never disappears, yet breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces -- which appears to be bite-sized snacks for a seagull or salmon.
The Puget Soundkeeper Alliance regularly puts on events to get the community involved such as beach and lake cleanups. Saturday, September 21 is International Coastal Cleanup Day. Volunteers will join various nonprofit organizations in picking up trash from a variety of beaches throughout the Puget Sound Region (https://pugetsoundkeeper.org, 206-297-7002). They will not only clear the coast, but collect data and information about the type of debris entering the waters.
To learn more about the benefits of and how to recycle, visit https://www.epa.gov/recycle or https://kingcounty.gov and search ‘solid waste division.'