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16 jun201816

The Recycling Story - chapter 1

Guatapé, ColombiaGuatapé, Colombia
Brief history of recycling
When it comes to the history of languages word recycling is just a baby. According to Etymonline the word recycling was first recorded in 1924 and used as a technical term in oil-refining and similar industries but its broader consumer sense dates from 1960. {"type" : "www", "url" : "", "title" : "recycling | Origin and meaning of recycling by Online Etymology Dictionary", "date" : "8 June 2018"}

Modern defintions vary a little bit but of course oscilate around the same phenonmenon, this one is from United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

Recycling is the process of collecting and processing materials that would otherwise be thrown away as trash and turning them into new products. Recycling can benefit your community and the environment.

It doesn't mean that our species only started reusing materials in 20th century. If you thought that was true you were off by a half million years according to an artical I found on IB Times {"type":"www", "url" : "", "date" : "8 June 2018", "title" : "Evidence Of Prehistoric Recycling Suggests Our Ancient Ancestors Were ‘Green,’ Too"}

There’s evidence that Neanderthals - close relatives of modern humans who inhabited Europe beginning as long as 600,000 years ago -- near Rome shattered elephant bones to extract marrow, and even shaped the fragments into tools. These tools were abandoned, but picked up later to be reworked and used again, said Giovanni Boschian, a geologist from the University of Pisa, according to IOL SciTech.

It's really worth a read!

First plastic bottle was used ccommercially in 1947 but stayed relatively expensive until 1950s when high-density polyethylene was introduced.  {"type" : "www", "url" : "", "date" : "8 June 2018", "title" : "Plastic bottle"} 

I decided to check the words recycling and plastic recycling on Google Ngram as it always fascinates me how the word spreads around the literature. 

It shows that at the same time of the invention the talk about recycling has been present. Also from 1995 we see a steady decline of book references to "recycling", which, without diving too deep into the reasons, I think it could have something to do with the fact that we think we know everything about recycling already and yet not even half of plastic bottles produced in the world are not recycled. 

Plastic recycling ngram shows that it wasn't until 1970 when we started talking about what to do with this product. Why? Why do we have a blip in the 40s when plastic was invented only to be dormant for 20 years? Perhaps all the conversations about what to do with it were squashed by people who saw it as a gold mine? I'll let you decide.  The biggest spike comes in 1985, the bottles were already present for more than three decades, but perhaps that's when people woke up and realised what this material is doing to our planet, animals, and even humans. 10 years later suddenly people stop writing/talking about the plastic recycling I wonder why? It correlates to the previous ngram about recycling only. And as you can see it's been falling ever since. 
Recycling in numbers
Obviously I couldn't stay away from getting a bit more detail on the data about recycling.  EPA have been gathering data on US waste production and recyclig for over 30 years. In  2013 254.1 million tons of trash was produced in US, that is 4.40t per person. Unfortunately only 34.3% of that waste has been recycled and despite the fact that amount of trash recycled is growing every year, the percentage growth has slowed down, which means the amount of waste still grows faster then the ability to recycle it. Plastics make up for 12.8% of all the waste but only 3.5% of all the recycling efforts. Only 9.2% of all plastic waste has been recycled in that year. Pretty low, don't you think? {"type" : "www", "url" : "", "date" : "8 June 2018", "title" : "​Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2013 Fact Sheet"}

According to European Comission we currently use 16 tonnes of material per year per person, of which 6 becomes waste. In 2010 there was 2.5 billion tonnes of waste produced in EU but only 36% has been recycled. {"type" : "www", "url" : "", "date" : "8 June 2018", "title" : "Waste - Environment - European Commission"}

The trend seems to be there - around 30-35% of all waste gets recycled, which isn't a lot. The main culprit behind the lack of increase in this precentage is very simple - money and wealth. On average peopl in European Union get wealther, their standards of living gets better, and that leads to consuming and buying more goods. Also, according to the European Commission there are more and more single households, which of course adds more waste. 

Another set of interesting numbers are those of how long it takes for different materials to decompose. This is my favourite representation
Hopefully now you can see why I cringe away from styrofoam in any shape, be it a cup, takeaway container, or anything else. This simple diagram, which is actually very conservative, should make you think what is better - throwing it away on the street/grass or taking care of it properly. Or even better! Be conscious and think about it before you by anything.

Unfortunately in 21st centry the plastic at least became so popular that it's difficult to find something that's not packaged in it. It's easy to give up with all the information overload and people get frustrated because they don't know what to do. Before you give up make sure to understand that even though ultimate goal would be to live without plastic and recycle everything - all of it is a process, a journey. Starts from educating yourself and making better conscious choices. You may still buy plastic but perhaps you decrease its amount in your shopping bag, buying wholefoods using your other bags and containers. Believe me small changes in your every day life can mean a lot for the environment and the planet. To me it's always a little victory against the manipulations of the system and I smile knowing I made the Earth smile :)
Types of plastic
Plastic seems to be one of the main offenders these days. I am not surprised however that people are confused about what can and what can't be recycled. There are so many variations of plastic it's hard to keep up with all of them. I wouldn't say most but certain number of plastic packaging has an indicator that can tell you what evil (or not so evil) magic has manufactured your container.

This is an example symbol for PETE - polyethylene terephthalate. This one is "engraved" on a plastic wrap of my new solid state drive for example.

There are many icons like this but let's keep it simple. This table is from one of the websites I encountered and gives a clear overview of the main types of plastic you can find in your daily life {"type" : "www", "url" : "", "title" : "Plastics by the Numbers", "author" : "Greg Seaman", "date" : "21 June 2018"}
IconAbbreviationNameReusableRecyclableExample products
PETEPolyethylene terephthalateNoYesMost water and pop drink bottles. Intended for single use applications. Should not be reused as it increases the risk of leaching and bacterial growth.
HDPEHigh-density polyethyleneYesYesStiff plastic mostly used in milk bottles, detergents, oil, toys, and some plastic bags, picnic tables, bins, and other products that require durability and weather resistance. 
PVCPolyvinyl chlorideNoNoPlastic food wraping, cooking oil bottles, children and pet toys, plastic pipes and plumbing, window frames, garden hoses. It's pseudonym is "posion plastic"  because it contains lots of toxins. 
LDPELow-density polyethyleneYesYes *Shrink wraps, dry-cleaner garment bags, sequeezable bottles, plastic around bread. 
PPPolypropyleneYesYes *Disposable diapers, plastic bottle tops, yoghurt containers, potato chip bags, straws, packing tape, and rope
PSPolystyreneNoNoFood containers, egg cartons, plastic picnic cutlery, styrofoam drinking cups. Polystyrene may leach styrene, a possible human carcinogen, into food products (especially if microwaved)

I personally avoid polysterene as much as possible!
OTHEROther: acrylic, polycarbonate, polyactic fibers, nylon, fiberglass  All plastics from polycarbonate family. The main concern is when products are made using BPA (Bisphenol A), a xenoextrogen **, known endocrine disruptor. ***

* recycling is possible but not necessarily common so it's best to check local plant
** compound showing hormon-like properties {"type":"www", "date":"22 June 2018", "url":"", "title":"Xenoestrogen"}
*** system in your body connecting hormones, glands, and the feedback loop of the homeostasis {"type":"www", "date":"22 June 2018", "url":"", "title":"Endocrine system"}

Make it a little exercise. Next time you pick up something plastic in the shop - have a look at the sign. Is it something you can/should reuse? Can I put it into recycling bin or is it just going to end up on one of the landfills, seas, or beaches? Can you buy the same thing with a more Earth-friendly material? If so, why not choose that one? Those little steps are making our planet very happy - believe me!

In the next post I will be writing about my experience in different countries I have visited so far in my almost 500-day journey!
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