“Living Lightly: Breaking recycling myths,” by Susan Eichhorn

Recycling is one of those things that most people know is the right thing to do. That doesn’t mean they recycle regularly. It just means they get “it.” They know that it protects Earth and saves resources. But there is much more to recycling.

I spend part of my workdays helping people understand how to recycle and the benefits of recycling. As a community volunteer, I work in other ways to protect Earth and save resources for future generations by being involved with Living Lightly, a free resource fair promoting sustainable lifestyles which is open to the public. The 10th annual fair will take place from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17 on the grounds of Minnetrista.

Recycling and living lightly

The Living Lightly Fair also will sponsor a pre-fair event by showing “Story of Stuff” at 4:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 8, at the Maring-Hunt branch of the Muncie Public Library. “Story of Stuff” is a 20-minute film about “the way we make, use and throw away all the stuff in our lives,” according to storyofstuff.org. The showing is open to the public and free. I will lead a discussion after the showing of the film and answer attendees’ questions.

But, let’s start at the beginning – when we acquire stuff – that leads to the need to recycle. As citizens buy goods from a store, those goods often come packaged in layers of plastic and paper. Then the packages, and oftentimes the used goods, need to be disposed of. Just to keep the discussion simple, let’s establish the fact that the majority of items that go to landfills come from items we use and buy on a regular basis. These items include food, beverages, cleaning supplies and other household goods.

Region 5 of the Environmental Protection Agency and Agricultural & Biological Engineering at Purdue University note that 10 percent of the average grocery bill pays for packaging. That’s more than goes to farmers for their crops. So looking for products with the least packaging might be a good behavior to develop to reduce the need to recycle.

Nevertheless, there are other items in our trash, but the bulk of it is food and beverage containers. That’s the stuff we’re talking about here.

So a person goes to the store and buys a week’s worth of groceries. At the end of the week, by consuming those goods, the average family of four has created more than 100 pounds of trash. They send it off with the garbage worker, and it’s gone, right?  Wrong. In fact, most of the trash in Muncie goes to a landfill that is in Modoc. That’s 15 minutes away. That is in our backyard.

Over time, the landfill grows and grows until it needs to be expanded and eventually closed. Then a new one will be built, but no one wants to live next to a landfill. So where will our trash go? The growth of  landfills is just one small part of our trash issues.

All right, you get it. Recycling matters. But how does it work?

Markets for recycling

First, what is collected for recycling is based on markets. What that means is that recycling can only be done when someone is willing to buy and/or take materials and make them into new items. The basic premise of recycling is that an item that was going to be thrown away is instead used to make a new item. It seems so simple, and in many ways it is. But just like many things in our everyday lives, recycling is dependent on the economy.

Therefore, just because it has a recycling symbol on it, for example Styrofoam egg cartons, it doesn’t mean it can be recycled in East Central Indiana. The symbol is added to the container if it can be recycled somewhere. Somewhere could be San Francisco, not Muncie, because that is where someone is willing to pay for the recyclable material. Let me assure you that driving a truckload of Styrofoam to California isn’t cheap and would probably do more harm to the environment than dumping it in the local landfill. The bottom line is we can recycle only what is accepted in our local markets.

The best recyclables

The best recyclables in Muncie are No. 1 and No. 2 plastics – but you also can recycle No. 3-7 plastics; clean newspapers – including newspaper inserts, magazines, phone books, hard-bound books, corrugated and paper board packaging – cereal, gift boxes and pizza boxes; clear, green and brown food-container glass without tops; plus metals, such as tin, aluminum – including pie plates and foil – and steel.


This article, which appeared in the Muncie Star Press on August 28, was written by Susan Eichhorn, Vice President of Living Lightly Fair and Upcycle Coordinator Education Coordinator, East Central Indiana Solid Waste District.

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