I was asked recently how working at the iRecycle@school Ed Center has changed my views on waste. It sounds odd, but I have actually become less interested in recycling. Please do not misunderstand me; if something is able to be recycled, I make sure to put it in the recycling bin and I still pull other people's recyclables out of the garbage if I can.
But what I have come to learn is that recycling and composting are not enough. The 4R's —Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot— are in a hierarchy for a reason. Reduce is the most important to practice, but even I still struggle with it.
Many of my favorite foods, almond milk in particular, are packaged in composite material that is difficult or impossible to reuse, recycle, or rot. Most of the products I come across that I cannot recycle or compost are composite materials.
The Tetra Brik, made by Tetra Pak, is the epitome of composite material and is the type of container that my almond milk is packaged in. It has three layers of polyethylene, a layer of aluminum, and a layer of paperboard. According to their website, Tetra Brik cartons are accepted in many curbside recycling programs, but by talking with representatives in the waste industry I know that they are not usually recycled.
One of the biggest realizations I have had this year is that recycling is an industry; even if something is technically recyclable, it will only be recycled if economically viable. Recycling is the process of using the material in old items to make something new, not just putting something in the recycling bin.
I have often considered writing my favorite grocery store and saying that I will no longer buy my favorite products unless they are packaged in material that can be reused, recycled or rotted. But I have not written this letter because I like the product and as of yet have been unwilling to go without it. The idea of avoiding all disposable products that that are made of or packaged in composite material seems daunting. But then I remind myself that these are relatively new products; I may have grown up with them, but my grandparents certainly didn't. We have made many great advances since then, but the disposable culture that we have grown accustomed to is unsustainable. Change can be slow and difficult and doing the right thing isn't always easy, but maybe together we can find the strength to reduce and reach a Zero Waste world.
Desiree DiFranco is an Environmental Education Associate in the iRecycle@School program