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Mitzvah Moments by Tish Levee -April 2016

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Mitzvah Moments by Tish Levee - April 2016

by Tish Levee

Earth Day reflections on recycling

In 1970, I went to the first ever Earth Day event in Laguna Beach. I was excited by the emphasis on recycling. Growing up during World War II, I’d learned to save just about everything! But after the war, no one really seemed to have any use for the bottles, cans, papers, etc. that we saved. There was one place that took newspapers when I was a kid, and I used to go around with my wagon and collect them from the neighbors to earn a little money. But there were no recycling centers, no curbside recycling, and most of what I saved just piled up. Finally, someone wanted it! 

We’ve come a long way in the latest 45+ years, but while we recycle a lot, we send more and more to landfills each year. Partly this is because there are so many more of us, but the fact is we buy more and more goods that are “disposable” or have “disposable” packaging.

A case in point is disposable diapers

I had my two-month old son with me at that first Earth Day. Disposable diapers were just becoming popular, and they were wonderful for trips and times away from home. For the rest of the time we washed and dried cloth diapers – or if we were lucky we had diaper service. In 1970 0.3% of municipal waste was made up of disposable diapers (350,000 tons). Today they represent about 4% of solid waste, the third largest single consumer item in landfills. For a family with a child in diapers, disposables make up 50% of household waste; and 95% of American babies wear them. Today 3.5 million tons of them go to landfills each year, where it takes from 250-500 for them years to decompose. Meanwhile they contribute millions of tons of untreated sewage to the landfill, which can contaminate the water table and threaten wildlife and the ecosystem as a whole.

In addition to the disposal problem, these diapers are very environmentally costly, using 250,00 trees each year – not to mention financially expensive. Diapers for just one baby require 300 pounds of wood, 50 pounds of petroleum feedstocks, and 20 pounds of chlorine each year. Contrary to the common belief that using disposable diapers saves water, the manufacture and use of disposable diapers wastes 2.3 times more water that cloth diapers do.

Not just diapers—how about water?

Water in plastic bottles will be the top packaged beverage in 2016. The US is the largest consumer market for bottled water in the world, with about 167 bottles sold for each person. However, only 23% of those will be recycled; the rest will end up in landfills, or, more likely, in the ocean. It is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean. It can take up to 1,000 years for plastic to decompose, potentially leaking pollutants into the soil and water. An estimated 100 million tons of plastic debris (not all of it from water bottles) is floating in the ocean, where it breaks down into tiny pieces which are ingested by marine life – often resulting in their death. These tiny pieces retain the pollutants that were in the plastic, which we then ingest when we eat fish and other forms of sea food.

Even better than recycling.

Precycling is thinking ahead before buying something about whether it will need to be disposed of and how. This can be as important as thinking of what it cost the environment to make it in the first place. We can make good choices for how we spend our money – and often, it will cost us a good deal less to make the environmentally sound choice. For instance, bottled water can cost more than 300 times what tap water does (and it is often just tap water anyway). 

Finding creative ways to repurpose items is upcycling. Often we can do this at home. Sometimes it is done by companies such as Patagonia which began making polyester clothing from recycled soda bottles in 1993. Today, they also recycle unusable manufacturing waste and worn-out garments (including Patagonia brand) into polyester fibers to produce clothing.

© Tish Levee, 2016