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Is Recycling a Waste of Time? (greenthatlife.com)
64 points by tdgoddard 15 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 94 comments



The maxim "reduce, reuse, recycle" is well-known in our house-hold but, as the article points out, the reduce part is hard. Many don't realize how little actually ends up recycled but a recent trip to Cuba was informative.

Cuba doesn't provide recycling in even the major cities, but our guides instructed that plastic bottles (e.g.) should be placed next to the trash-cans on the street because someone would reuse them. When she was packaging up gifts we brought to give to school children, she tore shrink-wrap into strips and tied them around small bunches of markers. Later when we visited a family run coffee farm, we were able to buy small amounts of roasted coffee produced on that farm. Those beans were packaged in recovered water bottles that had been washed and dried.

A couple other interesting examples ... we were instructed to bring along water bottles because they'd supply filtered drinking water in bulk, reducing the amount of plastic ever purchased. When we visited a family-run tobacco farm, we could purchase cigars. The were wrapped in the hard lower leaf of the local palm trees which of course is compostable and renewable.

Reuse in Cuba was also very evident - the best example is the person we saw in Havana who "repaired" umbrellas. People would drop broken umbrellas on his street corner and he's produce working umbrellas. Repaired is in quotes because many times, the finished, working umbrellas were made of the parts of multiple donor umbrellas. Another example is the classic cars that you see everywhere (it really is that impressive) - it was a little disconcerting to hear a '57 Chevy fire up with the sound of a European diesel engine. On the outside, these cars are kept in pristine condition but a collector here would be horrified at how they're kept on the road.


I think the important distinction is that it's worthwhile (financially) over there. People don't modify an old car to put a diesel engine in it in the US outside of hobby because it's a $1000 operation and nobody thinks that's worth it. You only see modifications like that in, well, car modification places, and they intend to turn a big profit on a classic car.

Umbrellas and packaging material is too cheap and bountiful to even bother trying to repair it.


I think the umbrella guy was a genius ... part of the problem with repairing "your favorite umbrella" is a lack of parts. Umbrellas tend to be fragile and his operation really only worked because of volume. He seemed to be repairing an umbrella every 5-10 minutes and was selling them for $3-$4 CUC each (about $1.13 US per CUC) so he was exceeding even the US minimum wage while offering a cheaper product - both these are amazing in a country where the official average income is around $80 US. Yet his business would have been impossible without the stockpile of donor umbrellas - which is precisely why we can't (economically) repair one umbrella at our house.


That's a big part of the problem - commodities made with third world labor are so cheap to replace, that it doesn't make sense to fix it with labor at first-world rates.


I grew up in a household that never really got over the Great Depression or the austerity of World War II, so a lot of this "reuse" thinking is in my brain. Especially when it comes to containers and cooking fat.

But my wife had the opposite upbringing, so she thinks I'm old and stupid because I wrap her Christmas presents in old newspaper and string. But you know what? A lot of those pages from the New York Times are more colorful and decorative than any wrapping paper. Plus, they're unique, and once you learn to tie string well, it's an incredibly useful skill.


Having grown up in small town India where in the 90s $100 per month was the norm for most and $500 per month would quality you as the top 5% in that town, I still find it hard to throw away things like empty bottles or cardboard boxes or paper towels (and that's with a silicon valley engineering wage).

I'm just getting used to being ok with wastage as I constantly have to force myself out of my old mindset in order to think bigger.


Partly as a joke and mainly being less wasteful, I often wrap presents to my closer friends with last-year's wrapping paper. They are always wrapped nicely, but with purposely mixed and (un)matched designs/patterns to make it visually obvious. Total patchwork.

I do this mainly because the alternative is to keep an obnoxious growing collection of partial rolls in the corner of the closet year-round. Last-year's wrap pack flat and aren't constantly in the way. I line the bird cage with them when they get too worn.

A friend got me back once by duct taping a present to me in a brown paper bag from his local grocer, and another friend has taken up the habit full out for several years now. Once she even used a wallpaper sample which looked quite foofy. I love it.

Reuse can sometimes seem a little over the top. Why not own it and make sure it's irretrievably over the top?


My parent grew up WWII Europe and had the same thrifty mentality. The one thing that sent me over the edge was this shitty knife my mom would always use. It started life as an okay cook knife but over 30 years after repeated sharpening started looking like a filet knife used clean fish with a worn out wooden. So it was not performing well. I had to take all the old knives and replaced them with a fancy set of German knives. Mom and dad thought they we nice but said the old knives were fine. sigh! Buy them nice Egyptian cotton bedding, into the steamer truck they went because they were too nice to use. What? sigh. And there are many other examples.


I usually try to find a recipe to cook that uses the rendered bacon grease before it gets too old. We don't generally fry our food so I'd love to know how you store and filter the cooking fat between uses.


Honestly, I don't do much to it.

I have one pickle jar that I use to store old bacon fat. I just pour it into the jar and put the jar in the refrigerator when it cools. I use that fat for things like eggs, meats, and certain vegetables I want to add bacon flavor to.

The other pickle jar I use to store leftover frying medium for things like potato chips and french fries and such. I fry in lard because that's what I grew up with.

I don't filter or refine or anything. I just pour the liquids in their jars and scoop out what I need when it's time to use it.

I don't know how long it's possible to keep doing this because my wife throws the jars away every few months and I have to start over. But there's a restaurant in Philadelphia (Bookbinders?) that is famous for re-using its cooking fat for decades.


I typically filter through a fine metal sieve. It’s not 100% effective, but it gets out most of the big bits that would burn. I sometimes use a coffee filter or paper towel in the sieve if I’m filtering enough oil to be worth the paper consumption.

It’s key to have an in-jar that you add to and an out-jar that you cook from so that you can properly rotate through the oil rather than continuously adding new oil on top of old.

A teaspoon on sautéed greens gives a divine mouthfeel.


H&M has a sustainability campaign "Rewear, Reuse, Recycle".

How's that for evil?


OT: I think H&M has better ways to be evil - https://www.salon.com/2015/03/22/the_slave_labor_behind_your...


Recycling is the wrong, least efficient, laziest solution to the problem of packaging. Why does every little thing need to come packaged in its own cocoon of plastic or paper? Beats me. Consumers have become lazy: they expect purchasing and consuming to be the extent of their participation in the long supply chain through which our goods travel. This tends to externalize the environmental costs of consumption to all of us. Recycling would be unnecessary if consumers were held accountable for properly obtaining and reusing materials.

Our laziness will kill us all: mark my words.


> Why does every little thing need to come packaged in its own cocoon of plastic or paper?

It started as security. Packaging used to be way simpler. First, packaging got stronger on medicines and food to prevent tampering, mostly after the incident when someone put cyanide in Tylenol. It grew from there - anti-tempering, anti-theft, protection for rough handling during shipping, as shipping speeds increased. The reasons kept growing, and the packaging keeps growing.

I fully agree that we can cut back. But like most aspects of society, you need to first understand the drivers that got us where we are, and then attack the problem by discussing whether our current solutions are truly the right answer to those problems.


This is the first I've heard of the cyanide in Tylenol. The wikipedia article is really interesting.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_Tylenol_murders


That is part of it for sure (recently a prankster was licking ice cream tubs at a grocery store, so it’s still a concern) and there was some copying of Japanese packaging aesthetic to mimic or to convey the idea of premium product, high class product.


An example of the packaging absurdity, order from Amazon something like a 48 count pack of AA batteries. It arrived in a standard Amazon brown cardboard box. Inside was the the battery company's branded box. Inside of that was 12 additional boxes with 4 batteries each. Ridiculous...


Amazon pretty much sets the standard for this. They're the biggest ecommerce home delivery company, and yet have absolutely nothing in the way of reducing waste, and give the customer no option or control to do so. The _only_ thing they do is allow you to group deliveries (in case you want everything at once) which has the side-effect of reducing carbon emissions by the delivery van.

And don't even get me started about Prime.


They do offer the frustration-minimizing packaging program, which is less wasteful, but manufacturers have to opt in.

Here in the UK, Ocado (a home shopping delivery firm) will take back the plastic bags your shopping came in. Now that Amazon is handling an increasing proportion of its own deliveries, it would be great if they adopted something similar and started using reusable shipping cartons like these when the client opts in:

https://liliputing.com/2020/01/this-box-with-an-e-ink-shippi...


>Here in the UK, Ocado (a home shopping delivery firm) will take back the plastic bags your shopping came in.

They charge 5p per bag (as required by law), which you cannot opt-out of. You might as well use it as a bin-liner, as the cheapest version costs around similar price. These bags are unlikely to get reused, when you return them, due to any cross-contamination issues e.g. bag for poultry (campylobacter) reused for loose produce.

An excerpt from their faq's:

Can I choose to not have my shopping delivered in bags?

We can't eliminate bags from our deliveries just yet. Packing them in separate bags for your fridge, cupboard and freezer is a really important part of making sure your groceries arrive in tip-top condition.

How much will I get charged for bags in my order?

The legislation states that big retailers must charge at least 5p for single-use plastic carrier bags.

So, as of 5th October 2015, we will be charging 5p for carrier bags used to pack your shopping. How much you are charged will vary depending on the size of your order, but we will only charge you for the exact number of bags used – there is no fixed charge. If it takes five bags to safely pack your order you'll be charged 25p. If it takes 6 bags, it'll be 30p. It's that simple.

The total amount charged for bags will be shown on your receipt.

https://www.ocado.com/webshop/scontent/customerServicesFAQ#


Ocado also have the “eco delivery” feature, where you can pick a delivery slot when (I presume) the driver will be making a similar delivery nearby.

It’s not a huge thing, but shows they are doing something (either that or they understand their middle-class market).


hygiene. I wonder if you could quantify the reduction in disease (and so perhaps a dollar value associated with lower healthcare costs, less sickbays, less death) that can attributed to packaging which essentially preserves factory sterilization into the market.


But you’d think containerization would’ve reduced packaging requirements a bit.

Put everything in your container and the container keeps it secure until it’s at its destination.


Maybe if you own your own container and control it 100%, but for many shippers, that it not the case. They are one item amongst many, thrown together with everything else.

So it is worse. Your packaging has to defend itself from everything else in the container. It may get tossed around by multiple middle-men, buried under heavier objects and boxes, and has to protect itself in case an object above yours breaks and spills who knows what all over your box. And what if the container is somewhat empty and ends up on rough seas? It could get rolled like dice for days.


I've never seen a shipping container on a store shelf. Not even Costco has that.


Do you have any recommended reading on the 'history of packaging'? That sounds really interesting.


I'm afraid not - my personal knowledge of it just comes from having lived through the last few decades, with a year working at UPS, and some time spent helping small business owners figure out logistics for shipping their inventions.

There are likely actual experts around who could write a book, but I'm not sure where to find one.


You're right: there are at least some good reasons for packaging to exist. So, I'm going to rephrase my original question:

Why does every little thing come in packaging that is not directly reusable without further investment of time/energy?

For example, I ordered a USB hard drive a couple of weeks ago. It arrived packaged in:

* An unmarked cardboard box. Why wasn't I required to return this box for reuse? It should be a Pelican-style container that is used to deliver a shipment, and immediately returned for reuse.

* An thinner marked cardboard box advertising the device's features and specs. Why was this necessary? I already know what I ordered: I don't need to be further convinced that this is in fact the right thing.

* A set of plastic bumpers inside the marked box. I get it: these hold the relatively gentle device in place while it's shipped. The bumpers are clearly intended for only a single use: they're shaped to fit only the particular device I bought. Why haven't we developed reusable dampeners that can fit a variety of products and used repeatedly?

* A plastic bag inside the box, with the device inside it. Why?!

There are ways to build reusable substitutes for all of the single-use packaging implements we're accustomed to. Of course, these are more expensive. Insert generic rant on capitalism externalizing its costs to everyone.


> A set of plastic bumpers inside the marked box. I get it: these hold the relatively gentle device in place while it's shipped. The bumpers are clearly intended for only a single use: they're shaped to fit only the particular device I bought. Why haven't we developed reusable dampeners that can fit a variety of products and used repeatedly?

Because those would be harder to make and more expensive and likely work worse, and the benefit would go to some third party, not the company selling it. You could legislate it, but otherwise I don't see companies spending the extra money and time willingly.


> and the benefit would go to some third party

This is the key. Incentives matter.

People like to think that the market is some state of nature; it isn't. It is shaped by the legal and cultural environment like any other human practice.

If you want reusable hard drive bumpers, modify the environment to make doing so in the best interests of the companies using them.


There are moldable bumpers/foam for this application. The foams can also be made from bio materials such as mycelium (which can actually be grown/entrained to shape) or that puffy corn starch that can replace “packing peanuts.”

Combine with cardboard and paper tape and you’ve got a pretty well compostable shipping container. Landfill neutral.


That's answering a different question, which is how to get away from foam to better materials. The question asked was why aren't they shipping reusable bumpers, which is because there's a market disincentive to, since it costs more, works worse, and doesn't help the company that makes/ships with it.


It would take to long to answer all of those, so let's just look at the first point.

> An unmarked cardboard box. Why wasn't I required to return this box for reuse? It should be a Pelican-style container that is used to deliver a shipment, and immediately returned for reuse.

How much does a Pelican case weigh compared to a cardboard box? It probably weighs more than the cardboard box and the purchased item inside. So, you're literally doubling the weight of everything being shipped. Then, you want to return that case to the sender, so now you're not only doubling the weight, but you're doubling the number of items being shipped, and therefore doubling the shipping cost for the consumer.

What's the environmental impact of a cardboard box compared to a Pelican case? I don't know these numbers, but even if we somehow forget about the extra weight, shipping, and fuel, you literally might need to reuse that Pelican case tens of thousands of times before it has a positive impact over a cardboard box. Would it get lost or need to be repaired from damages in tens of thousands of shipments? I almost guarantee it.

That being said, I agree we should be asking more questions and looking for ways to improve recycling.


Almost all of those can be answered by imagining the worst case scenario when your one device is put into a container with everything else. I just made a comment elsewhere in this thread about the same concerns, but in short, your one device could be put under something big and heavy that is leaking fluids. So your thin cardboard with the specs was the packaging put together to inform the consumer what the object is, because making separate packaging for retails shelves vs. online ordering is not realistic. But everything else is preventing damage along the way.

So yes, you are correct - standardized boxes that protect their contents, and all fit nicely together while shipping, and also are returnable would be great. Or... Amazon, UPS, FedEx, etc could just handle those outer layers of protection themselves. Hopefully the added cost of doing so is offset by the re-use you get from them. Either way, if somebody set up such a system, there would be no reason all those layers need to get to the final recipient of a package.


> making separate packaging for retails shelves vs. online ordering is not realistic

They do do this on a small scale for some items, that's essentially what frustration free packaging is. According to their blurb page about it they work with manufacturers to get different packaging which sounds like they're not doing the worst case scenario I thought which would be just shucking the retail packaging and adding their own.


> * An unmarked cardboard box. Why wasn't I required to return this box for reuse? It should be a Pelican-style container that is used to deliver a shipment, and immediately returned for reuse.

Is the extra fuel required to transport these reusable boxes and to recollect them equal to the amount expended just creating a new cardboard box? Cardboard isn't particularly resource intensive (it can be made from fast growth planted trees). Can your reusable box collapse? If it can't collapse it would take double the amount of truck stops to deliver a single good because it would take exactly as much space to return as it did to deliver.

> * An thinner marked cardboard box advertising the device's features and specs. Why was this necessary? I already know what I ordered: I don't need to be further convinced that this is in fact the right thing.

Amazon does have their 'frustration free packaging' which does essentially what you want. They work with the manufacturer to box things differently for sale through Amazon where there's no need to box and entice customers.

> * A set of plastic bumpers inside the marked box. I get it: these hold the relatively gentle device in place while it's shipped. The bumpers are clearly intended for only a single use: they're shaped to fit only the particular device I bought. Why haven't we developed reusable dampeners that can fit a variety of products and used repeatedly?

Only really works with similarly shaped objects that go into the same sized box. And again there's the energy expended in collecting them to factor in.

> * A plastic bag inside the box, with the device inside it. Why?!

Protection against damage and moisture during transit. Keeps everything clean and fresh. Though I do think the number of different little baggies in many products is excessive.


In a commodity market, "expensive" means "costs energy". You have to look at all the costs.

Are you going to burn fuel to mail reusable bumpers back to the manufacturer?

One USB disk has more environmental impact then a hundred packagings. It packaging where the marginal win is? Buy less stuff.


> Why wasn't I required to return this box for reuse?

Because I wouldn't order anything from a service that required me to return the box. Going to a postal office is highly inconvenient for someone working full time. Of course, I could be convinced to just drop off the box at some kind of drop off/pick up station (provided it was not too far out of my normal commute), but that would require a whole new layer of infrastructure.


Some counterpoints (devil's advocate):

* Would you trust a cardboard box that looked like it had been opened? * The thinner box would be for display in a shop. * The other packaging points are for longevity; there's a lot of products that will bounce around shops, warehouses, cross country lines for years until they're sold and used. I don't know who sets the guidelines for packaging but they sure plan for the worst.


There're 1000's of explanations for all of that - I don't know any of them. But there's one reason for all of it.

I'm guessing it's money.


Some products do have excessive packaging, but most packaging is there for good reasons. You need to consider the embedded energy and resources used to make the product, and how the packaging reduces the risk of wasting them if the product is damaged or destroyed.

There are cases where the total environmental impact of plastic packaging is very likely better than the alternatives, e.g. shrink-wrapping a cucumber more than doubles the shelf-life at ambient conditions:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3550898/

And if the plastic is then disposed of in landfill then it doubles as carbon sequestration.


> And if the plastic is then disposed of in landfill then it doubles as carbon sequestration.

Where does plastic come from, if not desequestered carbon? Does it consume CO2 from the air?


It comes from desequestered carbon, but importantly, it's very difficult to re-desequester it. Plastic in landfill is mixed with other waste and uneconomic to recover. It's enforcing "keep it in the ground" (not completely, because the manufacturing and transport release CO2, but better than nothing).


This is one of my least favorite genres:

"Industry X does things I don't understand. The millions of professionals working in that industry must be clueless fools, and should follow my hunch instead!"


On top of that most of the recycling is actually downcycling https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Downcycling


> Consumers have become lazy: they expect purchasing and consuming to be the extent of their participation in the long supply chain through which our goods travel

This is a little unfair on "consumers". I don't have a choice in how my local supermarket packages its products. I bring my own containers to the butcher, I bring my own bags for fruit and veg, and we still end up with at least one bin worth of waste every week. That's not counting the packaging that the products are shipped to my local stores in either.

Consumers aren't lazy, companies are cheap. it's cheaper to wrap something in LDPE + friends, and transport it across <insert landmass here>, then force the consumer to pay to dispose of it (and their local authority to bear the brunt of managing it), than it is for the manufacturer to make it closer and get it to me without shrink wrapping.

Until suppliers, manufacturers, retailers are held responsible, consumers are _not_ the lazy ones, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't still try.


I've had a few wacky ideas for fixing the problem of overpackaging. Theory: the greenest packaging is none at all, the second greenest is the one you eat. In medieval times they would bake and transport food in a "pie", a hard shell of bread. Inedible for humans, but the pig your family had could dispose of it easily.


I agree. Packaging needs to be much more expensive. Online ordering makes things much worse. Now goods are packed in 3 or 4 layers which then get thrown away quickly.


I find it funny how amazon will ship in a box or padded envelope, while random Chinese sellers on AliExpress will use something slightly thicker than cellophane.


But box is just paper, which literally grows on trees.


And water, and energy. A lot of both.


Energy is free. Sun's light is either hitting plants (that use it to grow) or it's hitting the ground.

Is water a big problem, in e.g. Europe? No idea honestly... it's obviously 100% recyclable, but it might be in the wrong place at the wrong time...


It does consume nutrients from the soil which would need to be replenished eventually on tree farm plots.


> Now goods are packed in 3 or 4 layers which then get thrown away quickly.

Just so you konw, this isn't new with online shopping. All of that packaging is thrown away by the retailer if you buy it from a store.


Not nearly as much. Items would be shipped on pallets to stores generally or come in larger numbers in a bigger box.


I worked in retail about 10 years ago, in a "Mom and pop" Computer store. We would receive hard drives in their retail boxes, with a plastic bag, a cardboard sleeve, and then another box around 10 or so, all wrapped in plastic. I would assume that before they got to me, those boxes were sent on pallets which were also shrink wrapped.

We would throw all that away before a customer ever saw it.


I'm routinely amazed by the things that I buy which are wrapped in plastic that could just as easily be wrapped in paper or cardboard or something else that biodegrades.

I suspect it's simply because the food companies have already bought the plastic-wrapping machines and don't want to invest the money in new processes. But when I'm in the store, I will routinely choose an item wrapped in paper or paperboard over something in plastic.


The primary goal with food packaging is that the food doesn't biodegrade before someone eats it. From an environmental standpoint, if wrapping a food item in plastic causes a 5% reduction in food waste vs. other packaging, it's a clear unambiguous benefit to use plastic.


I can understand that for things that come into contact with the food, but not all of the packaging does.

For example, the Tillamook cheese snacks are individually-wrapped planks of cheese. For that, I understand. But why do the ten plastic-wrapped cheese planks then need to be wrapped in another plastic bag?


Very true. At some points some friends were having a contest about most packaging needed for their meal. I don't remember who the "winner" was, but there was at least "bag-bag-box-bag" combos and up! (this was in the UK, but I bet US can "score" pretty high too)


> we’re encouraged to keep buying, buying, buying, and to not worry about waste disposal: recycling will take care of all that excess waste. …plastics industry groups['s] goal is to create a false sense of security that recycling efforts are environmentally effective while justifying our continued consumption habits.

There is a lot of this "I did my part, now I can go back to indulging" in environmentalism: turning off light switches, turning the thermostat down a degree, paper/metal straws, sorting recycling, etc. As with charity, it makes the person doing it feel better but lets them avoid tackling the structural issue.

Systemic problems need systemic solutions. We can't get there if everyone thinks they already "did their part."

https://www.newyorker.com/humor/daily-shouts/things-you-are-...


Moving things around is the most energy intensive thing we do, and that scales with how far people live from each other.

Recycling is so far down the chain from reducing consumption, that I can't say I'm convinced it even makes a dent compared to the environmental damage caused by living in spread out suburbs using as large vehicles as we do. I even wonder if the extra energy spent sending recycling trucks around is made up for the pittance that seems to be gained from recycling, especially assuming how much "recycling" is actually not recyclable.

As far as I can tell, it was a ruse to make people feel better about their consumption and to keep it going. And it worked great.


I don't know, but it seems to be a mostly us problem. Many European countries are quite a bit better when it comes to recycling.

The most important thing is to separate the different materials as early as possible. Aluminum, paper, cardboard, PET and other plastic bottles and glass has to be separated by the consumer.

Waste that can't be recycled can still be burned to gain energy and reduce the impact and space it uses. Landfills are much worse and probably cost more over the long run anyway.


> Waste that can't be recycled can still be burned to gain energy and reduce the impact and space it uses. Landfills are much worse and probably cost more over the long run anyway.

Can you explain / expand on this? From my point of view, landfills are like making oil, whereas burning trash is like burning oil.


> From my point of view, landfills are like making oil

No, landfill is like making natural gas and letting it escape into the atmosphere (lots of your oil-based products will degrade and produce methane in the process). Which is really bad, because methane is 20x the greenhouse gas effect of CO2. Burning is the best you can do for waste you can't otherwise use.


At the very least, paper & cardboard should be kept separate from plastic & aluminium. The first really need to be kept free of grease/dirt.

Plastic/aluminium/steel can be separated relatively easy… but then comes the problem of plastics themselves, separating each type.


I think it all depends on the material at hand, right? For materials like single use plastics it may in the end not be that useful, but for glass and aluminium it is remarkably effective. Those materials are easy to recycle, yet expensive to produce in the first place.


Aluminum is common knowledge it makes sense to recycle. But I'd like to see a citation on glass. Saw an article a few days ago that Baltimore hasn't sent the glass they collect to be recycled in 7 years do to cost and an environmental engineer I know says it isn't cost effective to recycle most things - that putting them in a well maintained landfill is far more kind to the environment.


So I have no clue on how this works globally, but at least here in the Netherlands we recycle 90% of our glass:

https://www.milieuservicenederland.nl/afvalstromen/glas/ https://www.nederlandseglasfabrikanten.nl/duurzaamheid/recyc... http://www.duurzaamglas.nl/glas-is-eindeloos

The second link is interesting in particular, as it states the following: "Er is ongeveer 25% minder energie nodig om scherven te smelten dan grondstoffen."

Translation: "Melting shards of glass requires 25% less energy than melting raw materials."

I also read somewhere (though can't find a source for it right now) that having separate bins for different colours (in our case brown, green and transparent) is one of the main reasons why recycling is so effective over here. It means glass doesn't become tainted that quickly.


I've started recycling at least 1 extra use out of everything, but I'm concerned this will not be sustainable.

Boxes I stack in my (large) garage. One day I will use these boxes again. Plastic Tupperware from various sources, cleaned and used for holding tools and stuff.

I can't figure out a good use for milk jugs.

Is this an issue of "sellers" not meeting "buyers"? I imagine milk companies could reuse this.


Cut the top off milk jugs leaving the handle and you have a decent container for screws or other odds and ends. Also works as a scoop.


We found a source for local milk that comes in glass bottles that are then returned for a refund.

For plastic milk jugs: — fill with water, use as weights — make compost tea in them for your garden — use them as plant watering cans — rather than buying packaged drinks, reuse with powdered form — store cold coffee for later / iced tea?

Just a few things off the top of my head - agree, they start to pile up and become a problem, which is why our best option is to eliminate them.


My dad always kept our used milk jugs because it was much easier to use those when he needed to change the oil on the bulldozers and bucketloaders at his work than trying to get a pan in place in the godforsaken places that the drain in the oil pan was always located. Especially when you are doing that out in the field and you are lying in the mud or on a chip pile.


If you garden compost the cardboard. Rip it up or break it down with water and mix it with nitrogen sources.


I've long been an advocate over monitoring total energy usage in a end-to-end process to determine if we're moving the needle (for instance, can a wind turbine produce more energy needed than used to cast the steel tower it's sitting on?). I am often lambasted for suggesting that "green" habits are not really that green. With recycling, it comes down the material be recycled and the end-to-end process.

In nearly all cases, plastic is likely a waste of time and just should just be reduced or eliminated.

Aluminium, glass, and steel are easy to sort from trash and recycling is as easy as smelting, but the energy source used for smelting needs to be renewable.

Paper _may not_ be a good thing to recycle, if you think of tree products are carbon sinks. Nearly all of a tree's mass comes from CO2 pulled from the air. So, sustainably harvesting forests (with rotation and growth periods), means that we're "fixating" carbon from the air into solid materials. Once again it comes down to the entirety of the process.


Almost white text on a white background. Judging by the colours, you could guess that the body of the article is supposed to be the least important part of the page. Or maybe I'm just old-fashioned.


If it were merely a waste of time, it wouldn't be so bad. But recycling does active harm in some cases.

When people switch to reusable bags, they generally don't disinfect them between uses, and nasty bacteria can grow (think raw meat).

There was that poor woman who was killed by a reusable metal straw. Fell on it with it in her mouth. With a classic plastic straw, this would have been at most an unpleasant cut.

In our lunchroom at work, a well-meaning cleaning woman fishes through the "regular" trash looking for things to recycle. Great, no? Well, except that the trash is filled with all sorts of bacteria from half-eaten food, used tissues, etc. She then, without washing her hands, continues to move around the room, touching the tables and chairs that people are eating off of. Hello coronavirus.


This article, like many on the topic, is largely FUD. There is only one $ in the entire article, and it simply says that plastics no longer fetch $300/ton. There is no mention of what the offering price is for garbage.

Here is more grounded review of the system:

https://www.thoughtco.com/benefits-of-recycling-outweigh-the...

The real answer is that it's a complex dynamic system. If landfill disposal prices are high, recycling makes economic sense. If they are low, it doesn't. If you start recycling, then the demand for landfill disposal goes down, so the prices also go down.

In general, most municipalities run recycling programs that either save money today, or save money by reducing the aggregate cost of what it would cost if all waste was sent to a landfill.

Municipalities which do not have a large enough scale to make a separate recycling program cost effective rarely implement them.


Lots of large recycling threads, mostly critical: https://hn.algolia.com/?dateRange=all&page=0&prefix=true&que...


I buy a lot of bulk foods from the grocery store, and keep them in re-used containers from other food products. It still requires one time use plastic bags to move the food from the bulk bins to my pantry, but it's significantly less plastic.

I'm nearly to a point where I don't need any more containers though, and I'm not sure how to cut back. It would make a huge difference if there was a way to buy more liquid/perishable foods in bulk but I just can't figure out what the logistics would look like.


Small steps that I take personally:

- At work, instead of grabbing drinks from the fridge I keep a refillable water bottle at my desk

- Whenever I get takeout and have unused plasticware, I collect it and add it to our communal bin in the office kitchen instead of tossing it

Of course these are the easy cases. The real problem is that you literally can't buy most food items without disposable packaging. That's not really something the consumer has the ability to do anything about. What we need is to bring back the milk-bottle model in certain cases.


I have a hard time believing that straws are as big of a problem as they're made out to be. Or that reusable ones are the answer. I'd guess that reusable straws get used like twice and then get lost, and probably have a 50x carbon footprint to produce.

If straws really are such a problem, isn't "don't use straws" the answer? Reusable straws just sounds like someone taking advantage of our altruism in order to sell us more junk.


There's another layer to this: all of those boats shipping material to China have a nontrivial carbon footprint, so at these low levels of effectiveness for the overall system that cost might even outweigh the benefits on a purely environmental basis, depending on how you slice it.


This is simple: just recycle metals, don't bother with paper and plastic.


So I wasn't aware that wet paper is hard to recycle. That kinda sux...

Apart from this I sometimes wonder how far robot technology has come in being able sort out papers and plastics from incoming garbage.


If you have a garden you could try decomposing it.

I have a lot of papers I use to shred, which became a hassle & I started burning them. Then I realized I could just dump them in a compost heap which does some quick work making them worthless to anyone brave enough to dig through it. Less work for me & at least I think it's better for the planet.


>I have a lot of papers I use to shred, which became a hassle & I started burning them.

You could try turning it into paper logs/briquettes, which might be useful as a source of energy or a BBQ, at the very least. Other alternatives have also sprung up based on this principle e.g. logs made from coffee grounds etc.

https://www.turningtogreen.com/post/paper-log-makers


We popularized recycling in the public consciousness as a fix to our bad habits. We say, "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" but forgot that it's prescriptive of the order in which you are supposed to try to be greener.

Recycling is the last resort. It's good that we've bettered recycling technology so vastly in a few decades, but it shouldn't be the first option. It still uses energy, water, and produces more waste.

And, of course, there's always the opportunity cost, the inherent omnipresent friction of economics. We could be doing better things with all that effort, people, time, and money, than doing a poor job of making up on the backend for a lack of effort on the frontend.


the spirit of the parent post here is well-intentioned, but insufficient depth and breadth. Economic value is not rooted in physics. There is no universal value for 0.01 kg of copper, through the ages. The incremental opportunism, and market fluctuation that has been so incredibly effective at building the industrial and post-industrial world, is also miserably short-sighted when it comes to overall flows of material and energy.

So, you can't say "Recycling is a last resort" without context, and context gets too complicated, too fast.


It's a metaphor. Not literally a physics or math statement.

In the system where most people operate most of the time, there's friction between all moving parts. Likewise, in the person-realm, every choice or action has an opportunity cost. "No such thing as a free lunch."

You can tell it's a metaphor and not a literal mathematical statement because it's not written in TeX /s


Contra Betteridge's law of headlines, the answer is yes. The only material that is actually recycled is aluminum. The solution is thus to replace plastic with aluminum wherever possible, at least we know it will get recycled, without government subsidies or cajoling.


Well, if one would go by Betteridge’s law of headlines, then... ;-)


"Betteridge’s law of headlines" I think this gentleman was ahead of his time. I think it's called Clickbait today. Both terms apply to this article. (Yes fell for the clickbait)




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