When it comes to managing the “stuff” in our lives, most of us genuinely want to recycle and contribute at least in some small way toward making the planet a better and cleaner place. Just look at the recycling rates these days in Western Washington that are hovering around 55%. Recycling our stuff is an intrinsic part our lives. If you have traveled to another part of the United States (yes, Texas, I’m giving you the stink eye) where recycling is nearly non-existent and have carried your empty plastic water bottle around in hopes of finding a recycling container, please raise your hand.
But while we’ve done an outstanding job focusing on recycling, we still have an uncomfortable relationship with waste reduction. For those of you that held on to that empty water bottle, raise your hand if you think a reusable water bottle was a better idea? For those of you that just did a little shopping and left the store with a dozen half-filled plastic shopping bags, who thinks it would have been better to bring reusable shopping bags? For those of you that just held a barbecue and went through heaps of paper plates, plastic cups, and disposable forks, did using real, washable plates, glasses, and silverware cross your mind?
As we have added more and more items to the list of stuff we can place into our recycling bins, we’ve forgotten that the real zero waste goal is to produce no recyclables at all. Take that disposable plastic water bottle. It makes us feel good to drop it in a recycling bin because we know it didn’t go to the landfill and will be made into something else. This encourages us to continue to use disposable plastic water bottles because we know there’s a place for them to go other than the landfill. And that’s the problem. Nothing about recycling encourages us to reduce our waste and consider a more durable alternative like a reusable water bottle.
And this brings me to the reason for this little article.
For a while now, I’ve been struggling with our annoyingly successful K-Cup recycling program. Keurig coffee makers have grown exponentially in popularity and the single-use plastic K-Cups are taking over shelf space in our grocery stores. I have to admit the Keurig is super-convenient with no fuss, no muss. I’ll even admit that I own one myself. I just plug a K-Cup into the machine, push a button, and voila out comes a steaming hot cup of coffee or tea about a minute later. But for one small cup of coffee, I’m left standing there feeling a little sheepish holding a little plastic container filled with a wee bit of coffee grounds looking for a place to recycle it to make myself feel good. They’re insidious.
At the City, we provide that “place” and I’m not sure if we should. We collect the K-Cups and ship them off to Keurig’s “Grounds to Grow On” collection program that presumably removes the coffee grounds for composting but incinerates the left over plastic in a waste-to-energy facility. Burning stuff for energy is not recycling, folks. I wonder if by offering this popular service, we’re just encouraging people to use more K-Cups or at least waving our hand in the air and absolving them of their guilt by making them feel good that the detritus from their coffee addiction isn’t going to the landfill. In our drive to make sure there’s somewhere for everything to go, are we doing a disservice to ourselves and missing the point?
So, as you’re managing the stuff in your life, I encourage you to take a step back for a minute look for opportunities to reduce your waste. For many of the things we regularly throw away or recycle, there’s often a durable alternative. After all, “Reduce” comes first in the “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” mantra.