Reduce, reuse, recycle–a mantra we’ve all heard. But how much do we actually know about navigating sustainable habits? More importantly, how often do we take those small steps to make our planet a better place?
After I learned about our city’s recycling and waste management systems in Salt Lake City’s Master Recycler course, I have been sharing the information with my peers. I believe that through taking care of our waste goes, we can positively influence ourselves, the communities around us (including both cis and historically marginalized societies), our country and ultimately our planet. Thanks to a focus on exactly this topic by our Salt Lake City Waste & Recycling Division, our SLC community is set up for success when it comes to thoughtful recycling.
As a dedicated recycler and composter, I’ve made it my mission to empower communities to embrace environmental sustainability. In my role as the communication & relationship manager for sustainability, I will work with the campus community to promote accessibility, inclusivity and direct support for prominent environmental issues that affect local communities. I encourage employees across campus to take control of their personal and professional health by being more mindful of what they throw away.
We’re drowning in trash
Although environmental health may seem like a standalone problem, it impacts every aspect of our lives. Environmental health is personal health. Environmental health is environmental justice. And environmental justice is social justice. We are only as well as our environment, and our environment is drowning in trash.
In the US, about 55% of our trash ends up in a landfill, and nearly 24% of that waste is food. Only 32.5% of trash is recycled and 12.5% is incinerated. Landfill waste is the third largest source of human-related methane emissions in the country.
If we don’t change our habits, Salt Lake City’s landfill in West Valley will be completely full in about 60 years. Another landfill will be dug further from the city, triggering a spike in transportation costs. Based on many factors, the new dump will likely be placed near where there are historically marginalized communities working to live their lives. This decision will only serve to exacerbate the existing challenges they face, burdening them with additional problems such as deteriorating air and water quality.
Switching to sustainable
So how can we make the switch to sustainable consumption? Let’s look at the principles of recyclearchy and buyerarchy:
Recyclearchy: One way we can combat consumerism is by reusing materials we already possess, rather than buying new products. For example, instead of tossing an old pot, consider using it as a flower planter or posting about it on your local Buy Nothing group (by requesting access to any group, admins will direct you to your location’s group).
Buyerarchy: This method encourages you to consider sustainable alternatives before buying new products. You can find new ways to use what you have, borrow or trade with friends, family or colleagues, go thrifting, or make things out of materials on-hand.
If you are buying or creating items, try to choose products that are sustainably sourced, recycled and high-quality materials.
Always ask yourself, “Do I NEED this? Does the convenience of this product outweigh the consequences?”
This idea can be applied to a task as simple as printing – do you HAVE to print it? And if yes, can you stock your printer with recycled paper or tree-free paper?
Credit: ISM Waste & Recycling, Sarah Lazarovic
The ins and outs of recycling
About 37.4 million tons of potentially recyclable material are taken into households in the US every year. Of that 37.4 million tons, only 11.9 million tons are actually recycled, which is a 32% recovery rate. The rest gets thrown into landfills.
Essentially, we have about 75% of an opportunity to recycle things, and we’re not taking it.
Single stream recycling
Luckily, here in Salt Lake City we have a material recovery facility called the Master Recycling Facility. The MRF recycles between 93 and 97% of materials sent to them through a process called single stream recycling.
In single stream recycling, you can recycle all papers, plastics, metals, and other containers together without sorting or rinsing them first. Those items are transported to the MRF, where they are then separated and prepped for reuse by high-tech machines.
In case you weren’t yet aware, glass is not recycled the same way in Salt Lake City. Instead, it is collected and processed separately.
Unlike most materials, glass can be endlessly recyclable. When separated from other recyclable materials, it can essentially be reused forever.
Glass production, on the other hand, requires soda ash, a substance that is running low in US mines. Despite the shortage, we only recycle 7% of our glass. How can we boost those numbers?
Educate people on why it’s important
When mixed with other recyclables during the single-stream process, glass often shatters. Those micro-shards lower the quality of products made by the MRC, especially paper. By recycling glass separately, we collect higher-quality recyclable material like paper, which can be sold to countries that they will use for production.
Support bottle bills
Many states have introduced these bills to incentivize people to recycle glass. Individuals put down a deposit when they receive a glass container, and that deposit is refunded when they return the container.
The ins and outs of composting
Believe it or not, food waste is the main cause of stinky landfills. Unused food, combined with other trash, also contributes to uncaptured methane gases.
Here are some easy ways to sustainably discard excess food:
- Backyard composting: Although composting in Utah can be challenging, it is possible. Diverse materials will help you build a healthy ecosystem.
- City green waste bins: Materials collected with these bins contribute to a huge community compost pile that are easily accessible and generally the most effective way to take your materials. You can also go purchase very affordable compost from this pile.
- Vermicompost (worms): These villainized little troopers usually eliminate decomposition odors and speed up the composting process.
- Anaerobic digester: You can bring non-compostable materials to a public drop site, like the Wasatch Resource Recovery’s Residential Public Waste Drop-Off.
Not all materials degrade easily. Here’s a basic list of compostable items:
- Uncooked fruits and veggies
- Coffee and tea grounds
- Disease-free plants or yard cuttings
- Juicing pulp
- Yard waste, leaves and grass
- Untreated wood sawdust
- Nuts, shells and pits
- Shredded egg cartons and newspaper
- Any of these things that are moldy!
After non-compostables are collected and taken to the anaerobic biodigester facility, they are broken down by microbes. The process results in bio-based fertilizer and renewable energy that can be used for heat, electricity and fuel. This resource is unique to Salt Lake City and is an effective way to keep uncaptured-methane-producing waste out of our landfill.
The anaerobic digester processes:
- Dairy and eggs
- Oily or cooked foods
- Meat and seafood
- Processed grains
- Sugary drinks
- Carbs are it’s favorite!
What to do with everything else
While food waste is a large part of the problem, many products we routinely use also cause damage to our environment. Here are a few sustainable swaps:
- Plastic bags: Normal trash bags will outlive us. They can survive in landfills for 100 years. Try using compostable bags, paper bags or cardboard boxes as a replacement. Some grocery stores like Smith’s or Walmart have drop offs for old plastic bags and recycle them to make new ones. If you can put your thumb through it, it can be recycled here!
- Electronics: Many electronic stores like Best Buy will collect old devices and use them to create new ones. Check with your local stores before you toss that broken phone in the trash!
- Makeup: Many places, including Nordstrom and HelloBulk, will take old pump-top items and makeup containers and reuse them.
- Miscellaneous plastics: Small pieces of plastic often fall through equipment. Cut back on microtrash by collecting little pieces in bigger containers or bottles with caps.
- Batteries: Batteries and other hazardous materials require special recycling. Take them to Terracycle, HelloBulk, household or hazardous waste at the landfills to properly dispose of them.
- Destroyed Clothing: Check out resources such as the Take Back Bag, Retold Recycling or ThredUp; to recycle tattered clothing and fabric scraps.
- Trashed Shoes: Nike has drop off points where you can take worn shoes, including busted running shoes or climbing shoes.
- Donate: When possible, donate items like toys, mattresses, clothes and hangers. Someone’s trash may be another’s treasure! Two local non-profits that collect donations are The Other Side and seasonally the U’s campus What Goes Around Comes Around program. Another on-campus resource, Basic Need Collective, passes along excess clothing to other students on campus that are in need.
Saving the environment may seem overwhelming, but small steps lead to sustainable habits. Here are three easy recycling tips to get started:
- Think about how you consume first. It’s easy to fall into old habits, but ask yourself, “Do I really need this?” before you reach for your wallet.
- Separate your glass. It’s easier than you think, and it will make an immediate impact on our environment’s natural resources.
- Practice not wasting your food. Overbuying happens to the best of us. Try donating to local shelters or ask your neighbors first before you dump that excess food in the trash.
Sustainability is a path to social equity, environmental integrity, and economic security for everybody, including future generations. Small efforts can be worthwhile. In the end, we can’t be perfect, but we sure can try!