Ask an Environmentalist: Is there a way to make recycling easier?

Have you ever thought: Why is recycling so difficult?

This question is often paired with the sentiment: “It should be easier if they want me to recycle.” 

The nebulous “they” referenced here is part of the problem. Big government, private sector recycling businesses, product manufacturers, and local municipalities all play a part in our recycling decisions, and thanks to how difficult they have made it for us, things might start to change. 

Let’s start with what we know.

It’s true that it is often prohibitively difficult to properly recycle many common household items, like mattresses. They aren’t generally desired as donations to charitable organizations (unless they’re in near-new condition), and no facilities in Allen County exist to recycle them.

For someone trying to reduce their environmental footprint, it can be heart-breaking to think about putting a large item like a mattress into the landfill. But what choice do we have?

Electronics also have a way of piling up in landfills these days because they are another item that can be difficult to dispose of responsibly.

Indiana law prohibits putting electronics in the trash because they can leak toxic chemicals. Yet, when you’re recycling something like a television, there is often a cost associated with recycling it, which some people feel is unfair since they already paid to purchase it.

Then beyond the headaches of dealing with these large, odd items, we start getting into new headaches with the small stuff.

As manufacturers come up with new types of packaging for their products, it is getting more and more difficult to figure out what can go into your local recycling stream and what cannot. So-called “stand-up pouches” (those plastic pouches with a zipper top) have exploded on the market in the last few years. They hold everything from laundry detergent pods to kitty litter, beef jerky, rice, granola, and more. But they are not recyclable

It all leaves us in a pickle. Marketing, transportation, and safety concerns govern companies’ decisions about how to produce and package the items they sell. But shouldn’t the same producers also be responsible for the life cycle of their products after use, too? 

There is a concept called extended producer responsibility (EPR) that has gained some traction lately.  This basically says that if you make and sell something, you should also have a way for people to dispose of it in an environmentally responsible way.

The pros are it could create less waste, more collaboration between recycling and manufacturing interests, and less need to constantly re-evaluate how to dispose of items. It also promotes a circular economy with opportunity for one sector to profit from another’s waste stream, reduces the environmental footprint, and uses less new natural resources.

Tires are one item consumers are used to paying to recycle.

In the end, recycling could be “easier” for us, and we could all feel better about buying and using stuff.

But the cons are that the cost of this approach to recycling often doesn’t stop with the producer alone—it ultimately translates to higher prices for the consumer up front.

So essentially, we pay either way.

Most people are familiar now with paying an environmental disposal fee for products like tires. The real question is: Would you be willing to pay more for items if it meant that the decision of what to do with them after you’re done using them is made for you in an ecologically sound way? Or do you think that companies should incorporate EPR into their process as a standard way of doing business without raising prices? Should laws be enacted to mandate EPR, or should it be voluntary?

Right now, there are a lot of questions without a lot of answers. But I do think that EPR could make recycling much easier for the consumer.

In the meantime, one thing I’ve been doing when I feel frustrated about what to do with a product after I’m done with it is to contact the manufacturer. Internet searches or social media sites almost always yield a way to communicate with companies, and if I can track down a phone number or email, you can bet they will be hearing from me.

I have to believe that if enough of us start demanding more responsible stewardship of products’ full lifecycles from the companies that profit from our purchases, they will have to listen.

What do you think?

Read more articles by Jodi Leamon.

Jodi Leamon is a Fort Wayne native with degrees in Environmental Studies from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington and Biology from the University of Illinois Chicago. Send her your questions at Jodi.leamon@co.allen.in.us.
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