I Never Would Have Thought I’d…   Leave a comment

The words “You know, before I met you I never would have thought I’d…” or something along those lines pop up every once in a while in our house. Most frequently they are uttered by my husband about something greenie that he’s started doing since meeting me. I guess I’m contagious sometimes.

In this particular case the phrase was uttered as he washed cream cheese wrappers while doing dishes, and he was referring to cleaning recyclables before throwing them in the recycle bin. Before meeting me, he didn’t think twice about just throwing some food container in the recycling without rinsing/cleaning it. But recycling dirty food containers can increase the percentage of a batch of recycling being thrown in the landfill instead of getting recycled. My understanding about the problem of food contamination of recyclables is two-fold: rendering paper unrecyclable and making the sorting process unpleasant. Unlike a garbage truck that is just going to dump stuff in a landfill, recycling trucks are really depositing materials into a sorting factory. That sorting factory is partially mechanized, but does require human oversight and some human sorting. I consider it a matter of respect for the people who work in MRFs that I clean all recycleables at least enough that there is no residue, and nothing to rot or spoil and smell bad or attract pests. In the case of cans and bottles that means a rinse and maybe a wipe down depending on what they contained. In the case of plastic tubs and jars that means a trip through the dishwasher. Things like aluminum foil only get washed if I can actually do it completely. Sometimes the type of food contamination and the crinkles of the foil make it next to impossible to clean, in which case it gets tossed. Flat foil like the cream cheese wrappers, or something that didn’t get any/much food on it gets washed and then flattened.

To be completely honest, I can’t be sure that the foil gets recycled even if I wash it and fold it flat since in the past I’ve seen aluminum foil listed in the “not recyclable” lists. I just checked our list and it doesn’t list foil as ok or not ok. I assume that it does get recycled, and that’s why I buy cream cheese in the wrapper and not in a plastic tub. The packaging for block cream cheese is paperboard and foil. The paperboard is ultimately made of trees, which are a renewable resource, even if the tree harvesting and paper manufacture can have really bad environmental impacts. The foil, which I assume is aluminum, is probably partially recycled metal already. Aluminum was one of the first materials to be recycled, even before it was “cool” because the energy required to recycle aluminum is a very small fraction (5%, see Wikipedia) of the energy required to create virgin aluminum, and hence it is cheaper. The paper can be recycled into more paper, although paper fibers are not infinitely recyclable. Aluminum foil/cans can be infinitely recycled into more aluminum foil/cans/other products, which is called upcycling. Oh, I take that back; I just checked Wikipedia and apparently aluminum cans are downcycled because they are two different layers of aluminum blah blah. I don’t know if the wrapper foil has any coatings or blended metals. The point is that a plastic tub downcycles even faster because of the limited options for use of recycled plastic. More often than not, those products made from recycled plastic aren’t recyclable in turn, and must then be thrown away. So when I do a rough life-cycle analysis in my head comparing the tub to the block of cream cheese, I think the block wins, and that’s what I buy.

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