We’ve all been in this situation before. You’ve finished your coffee and you’re looking for the trash. Just as you’re about to aim for the nearest bin, the dread sets in. Is this cup recyclable? Is the lid? Is the cup too frothy? Will the recycling police find me? Why do bad things happen to good people?
That’s right. I, too, suffer from recycling anxiety. You’re not alone. I’m here to tell you it’s not your fault.
Full transparency: I work for an environmental organization, Florida Conservation Voters, and I still get that feeling. I had a hunch other people weren’t always sure what items were recyclable or not, so, I did what any sane person would do: I rolled up my sleeves and dug through my neighbor’s trash (with permission, of course).
Among empty plastic water bottles, newspapers, and empty boxes of pasta, I found: dirty pizza boxes; an orange juice carton; a glass tomato sauce jar with sauce remnants; a tall Starbucks cup (smelled like a mocha); various frozen food boxes from Trader Joe’s and an assortment of loose paper in a plastic Target bag. Ask yourself: which of the previous items does not belong?
Depending on where you live, you may or may not be correct. For example, in Tallahassee, juice cartons are not recyclable; neither are frozen food boxes (but the plastic trays inside are). Glass jars are recyclable but not when they still have tomato sauce in them; so are the loose papers in the Target bag, but plastic bags? Not so much.
My neighbors have good intentions. They didn’t just recycle obvious non-recyclables out of laziness. The problem is the rules differ from municipality to municipality and they are not always clear. That orange juice carton would have been recyclable in Brevard County. Starbucks paper cups appear to be non-recyclable universally, and as far as I can tell plastic cups are recyclable in Tallahassee and Brevard County, but they definitely aren’t in Gainesville.
Do you see the dilemma?
When you recycle non-recyclable items they’ll most likely have to be transported to a landfill, and you risk contaminating all the perfectly recyclable items in that load. If too many items are contaminated in a single load, the entire thing may have to be transported to the landfill. What a waste! The environmental and economic consequences of bad recycling habits are detrimental but preventable.
Getting our recycling rules straight is an immediate and urgent way we can reduce our carbon footprint in the era of climate change. Lawmakers should be doing everything in their power to make it easier for people to do their part to mitigate these impacts. Currently, the U.S. recycling rate is around 34.5 percent. If we’re able to get the rate to 75 percent, the effect will be like removing 50 million cars from U.S. roads.
Florida has dozens of new lawmakers heading to Tallahassee this spring. Call their offices and tell them you want to see legislation to improve recycling in Florida. Together, we can put an end to recycling anxiety (and dumpster diving) once and for all.
Courtnee Connon is the communications manager for Florida Conservation Voters. She is a proud alumna of FSU where she earned both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
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