Why You Should Recycle Less

Have you heard the news? As of January this year, China ban all imports of paper and plastic for recycling that have over a 1% contamination rate. 

To put that into perspective, Recology the waste management company for San Francisco, arguably the most advanced recycling facility in the US, has the lowest bale contamination rate in the US averaging 5% per bale. 

This means NO current bale meets the current 1% requirement. Plastic only had a 9% recycle rate before the ban.... So, what's happening with all of our "recycling"?

Why you should recycle less from www.goingzerowaste.com

 One of my readers, Michael, sent me this email.

"You’ve inspired me in so many ways this year. I’ve been going zero waste since January 1, 2018 and have been doing great with it.

I am at the point with my household where we only take out one small plastic bag of trash a week. That being said, I would like to hear your expert opinion on something.

It recently came to my attention that the curbside recycling program in my county is sending most of its recycled products to China. From what I’ve gathered, China is the number one polluter of the ocean by a landslide.

This begs the question: do I continue recycling knowing that it’s just going to end up in the ocean, or do I start sending the few recyclables I have to landfill where I know it won’t be killing fish? Of course, I still have many gaps in my knowledge and would love for you to fill in wherever you can."

First of all, before we delve into this loaded recycling question, I want to say how AMAZING it is that Michael's household trash is only a small bag a week! That's awesome! Most Americans fill a 64 gallon bin. Thank you for all of your efforts, you are amazing!! 

Now, back to recycling. 

China recycles our stuff? 

The US exports 1/2 of it's recycling, but it's not just our stuff, they accept waste from Canada, the U.K., and Japan, and in 2016 they received over 7.3 million metric tons of materials. And, they manufactured 74.7 metric tons of plastic. 

Almost all of the plastic in the ocean comes from only 10 rivers in the world. I read several conflicting reports but they all average around five rivers running through China. Everyone agrees that the Yangtze river in China is the worst sending 22 metric tons of waste into the ocean each year. 

I made a map of the 10 most polluting rivers in the world. But, is this plastic from our recyclables? 

  1. Yangtze River
  2. Indus River
  3. Yellow River
  4. Hai River
  5. Nile River
  6. Ganges River
  7. Pearl River
  8. Amur River
  9. Niger Rive
  10. Mekong River

why did they stop? 

China made an agreement with the UN that they're working to stop plastic from entering the ocean June of 2017. Around that same time, is when they put the US on notice for not accepting our recyclables. That's speculation at best, and I'll let you draw your own conclusions. 

What we do know is contamination rates were high. Most Americans don't do a super great job of paying attention to what they put in the recycle bin. This means much higher contamination rates in the bales. Once everything is baled and shipped to China, the workers there have to sort all of it. 

This could result in minor contamination like a little bit of peanut butter left in the jar to major contamination like hazardous household cleaners resulting in poor working conditions and a toxic environment. 

recycling is a business.

It's important to remember recycling is a business not a charity. They're not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts to save the planet. 

They're doing this to make money. 

We the citizen did a bad job at sorting and adhering to the recycling requirements. The waste management companies didn't do a good enough job enforcing and educating the public on the matter, and decided China could deal with it. 

Unsurprisingly, China is fed up with it. 

so, what does this mean for me? 

It means your plastic and paper are sitting in bales with no place to go and to quote Rogue Waste Systems in Oregon, "Right now, by definition, that material out there is garbage. It has no value. There is no demand for it in the marketplace. It's garbage."

what does this mean for the future?

Well, it means we're going to have to either up our consumption of virgin resources. This is currently happening. But, the earth is already super strapped since we use 1.5 earths worth of resources each year. 


We have to look at zero waste solutions. Recycling was never our savior. Recycling was never the answer. This is going to force a lot of businesses hands, and we're going to be forced to come up with new solutions. 

Maybe China has ushered in a new era of recycling? Right now, there is more awareness on plastic pollution than ever before. Mix this with a ban on recycling and you've got a perfect storm for change. 

So, Michael, should you just toss your recyclables in the landfill bin? 

I think you're still fine when it comes to everything except plastic. When it comes to plastic, I don't know. That's a really hard judgement call to make. 

A lot of curbside programs aren't even accepting it anymore. First, thing I would do is get talk to my plant manager and ask them what their goal is? Are they trying to reach the 1% contamination goal? Are they looking at other recycling solutions? 

Based on how they answer is based on how I would react. Some recycling companies have sent out notices letting everyone know their plastic is now non-recyclable and is trash. 

Only time will tell what will happen. Recyclables are piling up everywhere. So let us hope this leads to global action to reduce our plastic usage. 

Reducing our dependence on plastic and focusing on reusable items instead of items we use once then throw away are the best things that we can do on the planet right now. Check out my guide for the ultimate list of zero waste swaps and if you're looking for a place to start, check out my post on the big four. 

I'm curious, what would you do? How will you handle your recyclables now that there's a ban? Have you had any of these conversations with your waste management plant? 

Sources and further reading: 

8 Tips to Declutter the Zero Waste Way

There's a belief that decluttering and zero waste stand in opposition to one another, but I firmly believe both principles to be very complementary. 

We are detached from the stuff we purchase and own. When we go zero waste, plastic free, or go down the path of minimalism, we experience a re-awakening and a connection with our consumerism. 

What we once used to consume blindly, we're now hyper aware. This not only applies to new things crossing our threshold, but all of the stuff that's living in the basement, the attic, and in the far reaches under our bed. 

8 tips for decluttering the zero waste way from www.goingzerowaste.com #zerowaste

Once we start experiencing this connection with our stuff and our consumerism, we begin to ask ourselves a lot of questions like... how did I consume SO much, and why did I waste so much money? 

1. why it's important to declutter: 

The reason it's important to declutter is to redistribute your resources. It's important that we start looking at things as resources. 

There are no wild blenders people pick from trees. Although, imagining a blender tree is pretty hilarious.

All of our stuff is created from a lot of different resources. It takes a lot of energy to assemble and distribute. Our items have a long history before they come into our possession. 

If you have stuff that's in good condition, why not pass those resources off to someone else? 

2. saving new resources: 

When you redistribute your resources, you're actually saving new resources from being extracted. 

Conserving resources is directly related to living a zero waste lifestyle, and I believe this to be the biggest correlation between decluttering and zero waste. 

Of course, you should't donate the things you truly need, but how many of those things do you truly need

If you haven't used it in a year, you could probably donate it. There are a lot of items you might only reach for once a year like camping gear. When Justin and I went camping we borrowed a lot of our gear from friends. 

If you have something you use only once a year consider donating it if you can borrow it from a friend or family member. See if your town has a library of things near by. 

You can check stuff out of a library of things, this way everyone can enjoy activities without having to invest in the equipment and it allows for lower resource consumption. The sharing economy is amazing for items you use infrequently. 

3. gaining more time and money: 

When you donate objects you, you gain more time. Think of all the time you're going to be spending decluttering. There's also repair and maintenance time for each item you own. 

The less you own, the less time you have to focus on these tasks. You're also putting money in your pocket. Stuff takes up a lot of space. Think of all the money you spend on heating, cooling, and maintaining your stuff. 

By downsizing your belongings, could you downsize your home and save money? 

4. it's mentally refreshing: 

Having a clear space is mentally refreshing! You have breathing room. It's so peaceful to have drawers that easily close, and have space to display the things you truly care about. 

Excess stuff, takes away from the things that your truly love, and having a clear space inspires more creativity and allows you to perform daily tasks with ease. 

If you wake up to a sink full of dirty dishes, it doesn't inspire you to make breakfast. (At least not me!) I have to have a clean kitchen before I start cooking. 

After decluttering there's ample space to store everything. It feels good to put everything in it's place, and when it feels good to put everything away, you're so much more likely to do it! 

Then you can wake up to clean kitchen and make yourself a lovely breakfast. 

5. don't dump it off at the thrift store: 

Once you've gone through all of your belongings and pinpointed the items you can live without, do not give into the urge to box it all up and drop it off at your nearest Goodwill. 

When you drop en masse, there's a chance it won't even wind up on the shelves. There's just SO much stuff to be sorted and processed. 

If your stuff makes it to the shelves, there's a possibility that it won't sell. Then it goes to the outlets, is recycled, sent to the landfill, or winds up in another country. 

If this is your only option, it's much better than throwing it away, but try some of the other methods first!

6. sell: 

If your items are in good condition, why not try to sell them? You can sell locally like on Craigslist. This is great if you have a furniture, appliances, or kitchen wares. 

If you have a lot of stuff, maybe organize a garage sell. Try and go in with neighbors to make it more of an event. This will draw more foot traffic. 

If you have smaller items that are easier to ship, maybe list on eBay. 

7. give to friends: 

Giving to friends is one my favorite ways to share the love. Never force an item on a friend or family member, but you can ask if they need X,Y, or Z. 

Especially if it's something they constantly comment on. I have a friend who tells me how much she wants my shirt every time I wear it. If I were ever to donate that shirt, of course, I'd ask her if she wants it first! 

Plus, if she took it and I wanted to wear it... I could always borrow it. ;)

8. find specific charities: 

Look for specific charities that will take certain items or just think a little outside of the box. If you have a whole bunch of art supplies, maybe the art teacher at your local school would like to have them. 

If you have musical instruments, could you help out the school or community band? If you have a ton of formal wear, can you donate it to a place that accepts prom dresses for girls who might not be able to afford one? 

If you have a lot of extra bedding, maybe your local animal shelter would like that!

You'd be amazed, how many local places you can help with your donations, it just takes a little out of the box thinking.  

I hope this guide helps you the next time you clean out your home and that it gives you a little inspiration for decluttering the zero waste way. 

What is Zero Waste? What is the Circular Economy?

what is zero waste?

The simple definition: to send nothing to the landfill. 

The more complex and accurate description: To completely redefine the system, to move to a circular economy and write waste out of existence.

What is zero waste and what is the circular economy from www.goingzerowaste.com

For those of you who enjoy listening to your blog posts, I have recorded this for you. It's a long read at 15 minutes. I hope you enjoy it, and let me know if you'd like me to record more blog posts in the future.

There's a more detailed explanation on my about zero waste page. I think I did a pretty bang up job, but there's going to be a lot of supplemental information in this post too. 

Around the interewebs, I'm seeing people wanting to move away from the term zero waste. I get it. I do. Really. The term zero is probably not the best term. It can be scary. I know. I'm quoted saying as much in an article from the Guardian in 2016. 

What is zero waste? Why does it matter? from www.goingzerowaste.com

The main complaints I'm hearing is that zero waste is too restrictive or that it doesn't cover enough issues like environmental racism, intersectionality, climate change, carbon footprints, etc. etc. 

The thing is it's all interconnected, and wanting to live a zero waste lifestyle does in fact incorporate many of those things. I'm constantly amazed how closely environmental and social problems are linked. 

Recently, I attended the Global Wave Conference with Pela. Twice on the same day in two different sessions, I head people say overfishing is a major problem, but that the problem is exacerbated by slave trade on the high seas. Without labor costs the price of the fish is grossly undervalued. 

If the price of fish accurately reflected all of the labor going into it, far less fish would be eaten simply because of the higher price tag. This would adjust the supply and demand. I'm not saying it would solve the overfishing problem, but it would certainly be a start. 

I had absolutely no idea that slavery in the fishing industry was a problem. I don't know enough about it right now, but it's just proving over and over how environmental and social issues are inextricably linked. 

The other main complaint is perfectioninsm, and how no one can ever be completely zero waste..... um DUH. Most zero wasters have made this point over and over and over again.  Zero waste is a goal. It's completely unachievable.

The motto of my blog has literally been, "It's not about perfection; it's about making better choices." for years. We're all human. We're all just doing the best we can and that's OK. Here's just a few of my posts breaking down the perfection complex. 

All of these blog posts talk about the messy side of being zero waste - the non-perfect instagrammable side. Most zero waste bloggers have a very real and upbeat positive attitude woven throughout their posts. 

They're encouraging you to do the best you can. We're never going to be perfect. We're just a bunch of people trying to have a positive impact on the planet. 

Other zero waste bloggers I recommend Be Zero, Litterless, Meredith Tested, Green Indy Blog, Paris to Go, Zero Waste Nerd, Treading my Own Path, and I'm sure there are more I'm not thinking of off the top of my head. 

So let's really, really talk about zero waste and the circular economy.

how did zero waste start? 

A lot of people credit Bea Johnson from Zero Waste Home with "inventing" zero waste. While she certainly popularized it as an at home lifestyle, the term was first used in the 1970s by Paul Palmer as an industrial term. 

Paul Palmer founded Zero Waste Solutions and it started by taking laboratory chemicals that were going to be wasted and instead resold them to scientists and companies. Basically they didn't want the chemicals to go to waste so they came up with a solution to prevent it. Thus zero waste was born! (not quite)

Even before that, zero waste happening. We just didn't have a fancy term for it. In fact, zero waste is super unsexy. It's depression era living or just regular living up until the 1950s. 

No one wasted anything because our consumption levels were vastly different because we lived in a completely different world. 

Currently everything is globalized. If you haven't read The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman, it's definitely worth checking out from your local library. It talks about globalization and the shift that's happening with technology. 

price is not what it seems:

If you wanted a new outfit in the 1930s you weren't going to be able to buy something mass-manufactured and made in Bangladesh for $15. No, you were going to buy something made close to you.

You might have even bought a pattern to sew it at home. It was going to be something of quality that would last. It would be something that came from your surrounding area. If you bought it from a store or catalogue, the person who made it was paid a living wage. The price of the dress would accurately reflect all of these things.

A new outfit in the mid 1930s cost on average $7 which would be the equivalent of spending $130-150 today. Most ethical fashion brands charge around that price point. 

If every piece of clothing I owned cost $140 dollars, you can bet your bottom dollar that I would be SO picky about what I bought and I would own far fewer clothes. 

It's probably why the average woman only owned 9 outfits and took much greater care of her belongings. We didn't waste as much simply because we didn't have the means.

chat with your grandparents:

If your grandparents are still living, talk to them. The thought of buying a product to throw away like paper towels or paper tissues was absurd. They might have adapted now, but it's certainly not the way they grew up. 

People couldn't fathom spending money on items they were going to throw away. Even if they did have disposables like a brown paper lunch bag, I can guarantee you they carried it back and forth until it fell apart. 

Grocery shopping was done just like zero wasters do it today. You would go to the store and you would give your list to the store manager. The items you were buying like sugar, flour, cornmeal, and beans were taken out of larger bags and weighed. They would wrap your groceries in paper and you'd take the goods home. 

This is why you hear funny anecdotal stories of people making cakes and ice cream with salt instead of sugar. It's because the bags weren't labeled. The dry goods were bought in bulk with NO labels. 

just because we lived low waste doesn't mean we lived circular:

While living low waste, reducing, reusing, and repairing as much as we can is awesome and amazing - it's still not circular. 

Granted, appliances from the 40s, 50s, 60s, and even into the 70s were meant to be repaired. That certainly plays a huge role in it. It's when we start to get into the 80s that companies realize in order to drive more growth, the products need to be very difficult to repair and that they need to break quicker.

The quicker you can break a product the quicker you can make a new sale. 

It's called planned obsolescence and we've talked about it on the blog before. This is when the problem really started getting out of control.

We live in a linear economy, and our earth has finite resources. 

Basically we take resources from the earth, we manufacture them into products, and then we throw them into a giant hole in the ground. Living this way makes absolutely no sense. We will run out of resources. 

Resources are valuable. So why aren't we doing anything with them? Of course recycling plays a tiny, tiny role in trying to recover some materials, but it's just not the solution. 

Products need to be designed with complete absorption back into the manufacturing process. 

When we resume products back into the system fully, we have what's called a circular economy. This circular economy reflects nature. In nature there is no trash or waste. A "waste" product like poop is actually vital to the system. It provides vital nutrients to plants. 

Living in a linear economy seemed fairly stable until we started consuming at higher rates and planned obsolescence became normal. Now we're consuming at a completely unsustainable rate. 

instability and earth overshoot day: 

We're currently consuming 1.5 earths worth of resources each year and we have a day to mark it called Earth Overshoot Day. It's the day that we've consumed all of the resources the earth can sustainably produce for the coming year. 

We hit it on August 2, 2017 and each year the day is moved up earlier and earlier on the calendar.

The problem is becoming worse and worse, so what can we do? 

living zero waste: 

There are actually a lot of things we can do. 

First, we can try to live a zero waste lifestyle. A zero waste lifestyle aims to live like older generations. It's using our personal lives and personal consumption habits as an act of rebellion or protest. 

We focus on buying only what we need. Reusing what we have as long as we can by performing regular maintenance, repairing, opting for non-disposable options when possible, and purchasing second hand. 

Lastly we focus on recycling and composting. The goal is to try to reduce and reuse as much as possible first.  So, before you recycle something, can you use it for something else? Before you compost it can you eat those scraps

Is this a perfect way of living? No, of course not. Does it completely represent a circular economy? No, of course not. 

We're living in a flawed system, but what it does is challenge the norm. It brings about new ideas and innovations. 

We tend to forget how much power the consumer has. When enough people stand up and say, "We want circular!!" More businesses are going to start looking at circular solutions. 

It's amazing how many zero waste or low waste shops have popped up in the last several years simply because the demand is there! Keep demanding change, and change will come. 

Trying to live more sustainably doesn't have to be rocket science. Just find a few things that work with your schedule. I always recommend people start with the big four. But, honestly just try something new! 

Once you've mastered one thing, then try another. It takes a lot of time, but with patience and perseverance you can make a huge impact with a few small changes. 

RELATED: The Ultimate Step-By-Step Guide Going Zero Waste

finding community: 

The next thing you can do, once you feel like you have a firm grasp on sustainable changes you've made in your life, look for a supportive community.

It's always easier to enter into activism with a local supportive group. I just wrote a whole post on this subject because it's an important first step when lobbying for big change. 

working to change businesses:

Then the next step is working as a local community to apply pressure to local businesses. This will be the next blog post in my series. There's a lot I want to cover here, but it starts with small business. 

What can small businesses do? Maybe the coffee shop incentivizes the use of bringing your own mug. Maybe they start charging for disposable take away cups, maybe you get the grocery store to put up signs about rethinking plastic bags. 

Eva from Kind Planet got these signs up in her local grocery store. How cool is that!? 

It's always much easier to enact change at the local level, but eventually we have to take it to the top to the major polluters like Coca-Cola and Nestle. But, that can't happen until there's more awareness and more people power. 

In order to get more awareness and people power, it has to start small. Movements don't happen quickly. They happen slowly and take lots of energy and lots of man power. 

working to change policy:

Once there's general unrest, you can start to form policy. The people must first act so policy can react. 

Once again, this starts at the local level. With California's bag ban, enough counties and cities passed bag bans that it became too complicated. In order to simplify and streamline all of the bag ban laws the whole state decided on one policy. 

It takes enough people at the local level with their local community to push for change. This happens city and county wide, then state wide, then nationally. 

Then once the national laws go into effect, this changes the practices of the larger companies and businesses and the smaller business, then it affects the consumer. Then we start the cycle again. 

For more information on getting involved in your local government, you can read this blog post here. 

I feel that there is general unrest in the zero waste movement simply because things move slowly.  The solution is to go local. We have to be present in our own communities. We have to be working for legislation, influencing businesses, and growing a local community at the grassroots level.  

Change is coming, and it's all thanks to you! 

Each and every one of you play a vital role in this movement. It's not about fitting your trash in a jar (that's a media gimmick). It's not about winning zero waste. It's not a competition to see who's the most environmentally friendly, the most vegan, the most sustainable, or the most plastic free. 

It's just about trying. 

And, not everyone will be able to participate fully at all times. Some may never be able to participate, and that's OK! It's just a whole bunch of people trying to enact change where they can and using their voice to rewrite the system. Using their voice to demand change. Using their choices and purchases as an act of protest. 

It's not about perfection; It's about making better choices. 

I leave you with this amazing video about the circular economy. I hope you're inspired and come away with a new passion for zero waste and what it really means.