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Sustainable Living – One Step At A Time: More Efficient Recycling

It's been a while since last I talked about my families' path on going on a more sustainable life style. Today, I want to talk about recycling. Like many other houses in the neighborhood, we have 3 trash cans outside: One blue can for recycled goods, a green can for "garden" waste, and a regular black one for trash that will just go to the land-fill. We have in the past sort of haphazardly made use of these containers. I mean: the tons of spam we receive ends up in there, and cut grass goes into the green container. But really, a lot of other stuff just ended up in the black trash bin because it is just so much easier to throw everything into the same trash can in the kitchen. We had a nice and big 13 gallon trash can with a sensor, but since the cheap sensor recently broke, and the lid became suddenly useless, I decided to make recycling easier by purchasing a less technology-intensive trashcan (less complexity = less can break) that, however, has three compartments ( one for recyclables, one for compostable waste, and one for normal waste.

We have been using this trash can for two to three months now. These are some of the observations I have made in the mean time: Specifically for the model we bought, it would have been nice for each of the compartments to be better labeled (like here: as the provided stickers easily fall off. Having made the purchase, we decided to just stick with it. But if I could start all over again, I would probably go with the second choice.

My Experience

More generally, three-compartment trash cans may have an overall larger capacity (~18 gallons) but since these are split between 3 compartments, each individual compartment fills up more quickly. The recycled compartment tend to be more bulky and therefore fills up most quickly. On the other hand, the compostable waste compartment fills up most slowly because unless you feed a large family, there is just not that much food waste which generally is also very compact. This actually tends to be a problem because if the food waste container is not emptied regularly, the moisture and warmth that can develop inside the bin can lead to unpleasant odors. We worked around the issue by just hanging much smaller grocery-sized bags into this compartment and just taking out these individual bags once every other day which coincides with whenever the recycling container is full. Lastly, I noted that if one were to always use new bags whenever each compartment was emptied, this would actually be contra-productive and potentially create more waste. To work around this potential problem, we decided to only sparingly change bags on the recycling compartment because most of the recyclable packaging material tends to be dry and clean anyway. The food waste container bag does get very messy and cannot be kept, but since we use much smaller bags, I hope that the impact remains small. The non-recyclable compartment does not always get messy depending on the waste that ends up in it. So I use judgment when I need to change it. Lastly, we are going to start using compostable/biodegradable bags (like these:

Well, what is the effect of all of this?

I have noticed that before changing to the 3-compartment trash bin, the oversized black trash bin completely filled up within a week while the recycle bin remained relatively empty. After these adjustments, the container barely reaches 1/3 of its capacity. The recycle bin, on the other hand, is full. So I think we are recycling much more efficiently now.

All this seems like a lot of work. Does it really change that much? Is it really worth it?

There are financial benefits to municipalities who adopt recycling programs. Although the exact financial benefits to the municipalities are debated. There seems to be a consensus that recycling can reduce costs to waste management ( because recycled materials can be sold in bulk. I heard on NPR radio that in some cases recycled bins can make a small amount of money, while regular trash bins just cost money. According to the coverage, some cities have resorted to fining people who out of laziness only take out the regular trash bin. I have not had to confirm and backup this claim further though.

So why should one put in more efforts into recycling?

Simply said it's the right thing to do because it helps the environment by reducing the amount of waste that go to land-fills, increasing the amount of resources that can be reused, and thereby reduce the amount of new resources that have to be harvested or mined from the environment. It helps the municipality you live in save some money on waste management which will help you because savings in waste management are passed onto you in the form of fewer increased fees.

Recycling more efficiently is just another small step we can take to help reduce our impact on the environment. It is powerful though because with relatively little investment, and a small change in behavior, one can immediately make a personal contribution. In the end, I believe that it is the sum of small steps each of us individuals take that will make a difference. And so I hope, I have provided another small seed of an idea that can take hold in more people's mind in the future.

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