Tag Archives: Earth Day

It’s Time for a Garbage Makeover

Who doesn’t love a good makeover? I’d say our poor, neglected garbage cans are definitely overdue. I mean, we all recycle and throw things away every day, but there’s so much misinformation out there that I feel like we need a Garbage Czar— or at the very least a Garbage Miss Manners— to help us all get the facts straight.

I officially volunteer.

Here are just a few facts to help revamp the way you discard:

Paper, cardboard and boxboard

Paper, cardboard and boxboard (what cereal boxes are made of) are of course, all recyclable. We do a pretty decent job of it too: according to the EPA 68% of paper produced gets recycled. But what about if your envelopes or boxboard or cardboard have little cellophane windows? Or stickers?

Turns out that when paper gets to the mill for recycling, it is shredded and then pulped in giant vats with water and chemicals to help break it down. This liquid is then run through screens to remove paperclips, staples, cellophane, tape and anything else that isn’t paper. No worries! Your phone book with the binding still intact, and your pasta box with the plastic window? Is still getting recycled.


Glass is of course recyclable. Glass gets sorted by color and then pulverized. Broken glass gets filtered through a series of screens which separate out non-glass material, after which heat is introduced which burns away remaining paper and other non-glass bits.

Here’s the problem though: because so many garbage services have switched to single stream collection, glass is getting broken and hard to sort in the waste stream. Even though glass manufacturers want this material, the U.S. has never managed to recycle more than 30% of glass produced, whereas the EU recycles 75 % of its glass. Proof that single stream isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

All will fear the wrath of the confused-looking Garbage Czar


Tinfoil is one of those things most people probably don’t realize they can recycle as long as it is clean: just lay it on the sink bottom and drag your sponge across it in horizontal strokes, then lay it in the dish drainer to dry.

The trick is to save up a bunch of pieces of tin foil so you can ball them up into the size of a potato or a softball- just big enough to ensure they won’t fall through the cracks of the recycling sorting system. Or- now that its clean- you could reuse it!


Multilayers are one of those materials that you’ve probably never heard of that are absolutely everywhere: chip and snack bags, frozen food bags, coffee bags, much of the shrink wrapping around meats, salad mix bags, pet treat bags… They’re all made with Frankenstein combinations of micro-thin layers of many different kinds of plastic and foil, mylar, paper and still more plastic.

Recyclable? Not in a million years.

Rigid plastic

Rigid plastic doesn’t get recycled most of the time. In fact, 95% of plastic produced does not get recycled- with those odds, trying to recycle your plastic is like trying to win the lottery.

Technically the plastics marked with RIC numbers (resin identification code- the numbers inside the chasing arrow triangle) 1 and 2 have the very best chance. On the other hand, recycled plastics have their own unique set of problems, so there’s an argument to be made we shouldn’t be recycling them at all- more on this in a future post.

Garbage Miss Manners always puts things on her head

Plastic Wrap

Plastic Wrap manufacturers want you to think their product is recyclable. If you call many of them and ask, as I did, they’ll tell you it is. The problem is that it totally isn’t: no one wants this stuff gumming up the works at their recycling center- period.

Instead, why not head over to Grandma’s, or the local charity resale shop and pick yourself up some pretty, lidded Pyrex? This was plastic wrap before plastic wrap was invented, and you know what? It is beautiful, functional, and infinitely reusable.

Do YOU have a Garbage Makeover question? Ask me! I am the Czar after all. AND I have a tin foil tiara.

Happy… Earth Day?

Well, hell. This is not the Earth Day I was expecting.

Not that I’ve ever been exactly sure how I was supposed to celebrate Earth Day… but surely this can’t be it.

Last week they brought BACK the plastic bags at my supermarket whose ban I was so delighted to witness only a few short weeks ago. There’s talk there of prohibiting reusable bags altogether. And bottle and can or plastic film recycling are out of the question: the doors are locked. No more bringing my own containers anywhere. No more buying anything in bulk.

Suddenly I find myself much more worried about getting in and out of the store with the efficiency of a Navy Seal than about whether a product has a non-recyclable plastic ring around the lid. (Get in! Get out! Go home! Stay there!)

Although these changes are deeply dismaying, they’re for the most part hard to argue with. Do we need to be as careful as we can possibly manage to avoid the spread of disease? Of course. Saving lives trumps bringing my plastic bags back to the supermarket.

However, while we’re busy being distracted or panicked, sometimes it’s hard to know when the measures stop making sense anymore. Unfortunately the pandemic presents a golden opportunity to justify anti-environmental behavior under the guise of necessity. Exhibit A: The Environmental Protection Agency has suspended enforcement of environmental laws. That’s right! No more pesky monitoring, lab analysis or reporting. In the United States there are now effectively no penalties for breaking pollution rules. And Coronavirus necessitates this because… if we can’t pollute our own country the germs win?

But don’t worry. “The EPA expects all regulated entities to continue to manage and operate their facilities in a manner that is safe and that protects the public and the environment.” Translation: big corporations are now operating under the honor system. I’m sure everything will be fine.

It’s complicated on the local level too. Sure, everyone agrees waste removal is an essential service, but whether or not recycling is also essential has been left up to the local governments to decide. Cue the chaos. Here in Vermont— Vermont mind you— there’s a proposal to landfill recycling and postpone a ban on landfilling food scraps. Even if these steps are truly necessary, once the crisis has passed, how long will it be before those hard-won environmental gains are re-established? There’s just no telling.

Saving the earth seems to be discontinued until further notice.

It’s a weird time. There’s so much depression, boredom, isolation and fear but at the same time there are moments of unexpected beauty. Polluted skylines the world over are clearing because the world is standing still. The polluted canals of Venice are crystal clear. Wild boar are wandering the streets of Barcelona and a herd of wild deer cavort on Indian streets. We watch from our windows, take videos with our phones. We are a captive audience, literally and figuratively. In our absence, what will nature do to surprise us next?

What can we find to celebrate in such a Through-the-Looking-Glass Earth Day, the 50th anniversary of the first Earth day, no less? I read an article on the World Economic Forum that had a good answer. It argued that what the pandemic offers us is the chance to see the huge difference humans can make when they make individual change.

“Our collective ability to address the damage we’ve done to nature has seemed impossible. Until now… The virus is raging, but we all can help stop it. When’s the last time you felt you could freeze a glacier, or actually help extinguish a forest fire? What we do here – and what we learn – could save lives and help us all endure and thrive as individuals, as communities, as a species.”

Meanwhile, our family is limping our way along in our Year of No Garbage turned Year of Keeping All Our Nice, Clean, Washed Garbage In A Pile In The Kitchen. Today, while cooking, I held up a piece of plastic food packaging and shook my head, and sighed. Was I disappointed at it, or me?

Ilsa laughed.

Today, on the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, I’m asking myself a simple but deeply important question: on the other side of The Great Pause, what will we do with what we’ve learned?