Trash Dissection 1


Note to readers: Before the election of #45, was largely focused on ‘small lifestyle changes that can make a difference.’  Recent events have made it harder and harder to rest easy in the mantra of ‘thinking globally and acting locally.’  But hey, now that we’re knee-deep in this madness, it’s time to keep working on the ‘small local actions’ as a lifeline against despair.  Along these lines, I’m participating in an experiment where you keep all your trash and recycling for a week and then end the week by sorting through it all, noting what items are recyclable in your area, and what is not.   Week 1 results below:



A friend recently said that nothing had been as destructive to the waste-reduction movement as recycling.  Recycling, especially if you’re not especially fastidious about it, is a glorious guilt sink.  You take things you shouldn’t really have done, and you dump them in the blue bin, hoping that they will come to a good end.  You’ve done your part, now the system miraculously works.  If you live (like I do) in a city with single stream recycling, and communal blue recycling bins, there is never a system of accountability where your trash could be rejected– so you just keep tossing things in there optimistically.

Part of this exercise of keeping one’s trash for a week is to actually to through the recycling and research what items can and can’t be recycled.  When I look at the guidelines provided by the City of Los Angeles, it appears that almost everything can be recycled– but it’s hard to tell.  When is something too soiled with food/ grease to be unrecyclable (pizza)?  What about items (paper plates, ice cream container) that appear to be coated in plastic?   What about the ‘soft plastic’ bags that come from the produce aisle at the grocery store, or wrapped the birthday card you bought at papyrus?  They look like two completely different types of soft plastic– can they be mixed together in a larger plastic bag and then recycled?  The photo above is pretty representative of my recycling, which typically exceeds the volume of my weekly trash by a lot.  But when I start breaking it down, I see a lot of items that I’m un-sure about in terms of true recyclability, such as:


DSC03238Turns out most receipts today are coated in plastic– something called  ‘thermal coating.’  This makes them unrecyclable in the City of Los Angeles.  Lesson learned!  I’ve been throwing them in there for 2 years, contaminating the waste stream.  Because they are coated in endocrine-disrupting plastic (BPA), they also can’t be added to my worm or compost bin, or I will be contributing to the plasticization of my own home food system.  Receipts = trash.   Much as I hate typing in my email to get receipts, I think I’m going to do that more often.

Other random paper+plastic bits


Once I learned receipts weren’t recyclable, I started looking more closely at the other small bits of paper I’d thought were recyclable.  And what I found was that many paper items are mixed with/ fused with plastic, with adhesive, or (as in the case of these baggage claim tickets), both.

Also disqualified are paper cups, containers and plates that have been coated with plastic.  (See the paper plate and ice cream container I’d hoped to recycle, above).  I’m still not sure  if the ice cream containers are recyclable or not… But I guess coffee cups are not.

Soft Plastic

In the ‘surprisingly recyclable’ category? Plastic bags.  In many places, ‘soft plastic’ is a recycling contaminant that gunks up machines and conveyor belts.  But here in LA, apparently you can recycle them.  What do they recycle these into?  I have no idea.  Does it matter that some are one kind of plastic and some are another?  Again, no clue.  We’ve been working to reduce our production of these bags by using resuable bags in the bulk and produce aisle, but somehow, soft plastic still finds us.  Example: we had to fly to Ohio to find a house this past week, and they put our baby’s car eat in an enormous plastic bag prior to putting it on the conveyor belt, despite my protestations.  In spite of the enormous bag, the car seat was still delayed, and we ended up borrowing one from the airline when we arrived (why can’t it work this way to begin with???)  So there’s that.  I was pretty proud of our attempt at family zero waste travel over all, but the car seat bag was a pretty big sore spot.


In addition to the recycling we discarded a plastic grocery bag’s worth of trash.  I didn’t dissect the trash since this was my ‘warm up’ week for this exercise–and also because the stuff in there includes hair and the dust bunnies and dental floss.  A more noble approach to these items would be to compost them, but because much of my compost ends up at the school, I keep it clean of stuff like that.

So What?

One of my astute co-workers was talking about how she makes herself a Kurig coffee everyday (with a notorious, unrecyclable plastic ‘K-cup.’   She was saying how it made her feel guilty, but at the same time, she had recently learned that the entire floor she worked on was going to be demolished in a renovation for a new tenant, and that everything left behind would be thrown in the trash.  Compared to the wasteful scale of standard corporate practice, she said, her daily K-cup just doesn’t seem like a problem.

Half of me completely agrees with her.  Rather than collecting, dissecting, and writing about our trash, it seems it would be more impactful to convince our friends and neighbors to fly less and eat less meat.  Or to develop policy that forces building managers to re-use the stuff in office spaces instead of chucking it out each time a new tenant moves in.  .  Taken in the grand scheme of things, getting really nutzo about reducing the amount of plastic waste we each produce as individuals almost seems like a distraction from real issues.

At the same time, it seems to me that we often only learn to care  about big issues by starting with the small, personal ones.  Some of the people who I’ve met through the Zero Waste movement are the most incredible leaders when it comes to big systems changes, but they learned their bravery and commitment by starting small.  It takes guts to walk into a store and stand up for your re-usable container, especially if it means educating employees about their own corporate policy.  But you do that enough times, and you start to get serious about the systems that underpin our habits.   I don’t think my colleague would have cared about the grotesque waste inherent to commercial office renovation if there hadn’t been a campaign out there that also made her worry about her daily K-cup.

All of which brings me back to my personal waste stream.  There are some things that I’m not willing to change about my waste stream at this point.  I’m not giving up dental floss or toilet paper, and I probably can’t give up store-bought flour tortillas until I quit my job and have time to make handmade.  But there is a lot of plastic trash I have given up, and in almost every instance, my life has become easier or more enjoyable as a result.  Bringing awareness to what I throw away (or don’t) has opened my eyes to many of the dysfunctional defaults in our society– defaults that claim to be built on sanitation or convenience, but which often are built on profits for corporations.

So I’ll be dissecting my trash again next week, because as silly as it sounds, it might just be the way to start making the big changes we need.  I encourage you to join me!

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