Recycling 2.0 - Getting to Zero Waste

Figure 1  Pixabay

Figure 1 Pixabay

By Helga Luest

When I think of recycling, I often recall a family yard sale from years ago where I met precocious five-year old William. As he looked over the tables of household items, games, and tchotchkes, he said, “One person’s trash is another person’s treasure.”

Even at such a young age, William recognized that when one person is done with something, there still could be value to someone else. This recycling perspective has become even more important as we continue to experience global warming and consider ways to reduce the carbon that heats our planet. We have an opportunity to share with neighbors rather than sending items to the landfill – and everyone loves a win-win outcome!

Beyond household items, much of what goes into trash and recycling comes from what we purchase. In our fast-paced, grab-and-go, easy breezy approach to living, we sometimes lose sight of the resources it takes to create and dispose of the packaging for recyclable products–usually after just a few moments in our hands.

As more people realize that climate change is real, that it’s bad, and that we are the cause, hope lies in what we can do about it. We are scrutinizing our consumer culture habits and are determined to find solutions. That provides pathways of opportunity in policy, practice, and how we live.

Most communities have carbon reduction and zero-waste goals, creating a real opportunity to shift the tide of climate change with bold action. How we change our management of consumption and waste from how we’ve been living is a monumental undertaking because it requires significant social and behavior change. By now, most people are aware of the climate challenges we face and have recycling and energy conservation in mind. But we have another motivator as well: recycling now is prohibitively expensive.

Another Reason to Aim for Zero

In the past, many states and communities exported recycling to China, which was not only convenient, but also generated some revenue. In 2018, China placed new recycling standard in place for all imports. The products had to have 0.5% contamination or less. Since most communities see 15% or more contamination, the new standard has meant that what many states and localities were exporting is staying here at home. Because recycling in the U.S. is more costly than it was to export to China, government officials have had to find alternatives – and in some cases this led to toxic decisions.

The average American contributes about 4.4 lbs. of recycling per day, so you can imagine how quickly plastic, glass, paper and other recyclables pile up. Faced with the need to act quickly, Philadelphia resorted to incinerating its recycling. That in turn created a social justice issue, as people living near the incinerator are economically disadvantaged people of color. The toxic, carbon-emitting process of burning recycling is unhealthy and shouldn’t be considered a “solution,” because it isn’t one.

So our communities have two huge motivators to address consumption and waste. We no longer have a cost-effective way to manage recycling waste, and we know we need to take swift action to reduce carbon emissions that are heating our planet.

What can we do to get to zero waste?


Obvious, right?! Except every town, county, and state seems to have a different process for what they will accept. Some have single stream (everything in one bin) and others have dual stream (paper and cardboard in one bin and cans, bottles, and plastics in another) for collection. To reduce contamination, visit your local waste collection website. If you aren’t sure what you can recycle, take a minute to ask. And from an advocacy standpoint, consider talking with policymakers about streamlining this process at the state or national level to make it less confusing. The Environmental Protection Agency has some good general information about what can be recycled.

Making What You Have Last Longer

Most things we purchase have a life expectancy, but in some cases, little steps can make them last much longer. For instance, not charging your cell phone overnight can help to extend the life of the battery. Another example is to line dry some of your clothing (especially synthetics that release plastic micro-particles in the air when they are in the dryer – you’ll notice the breakdown on the lint screen!). Sparing them the dryer will keep clothing from fading and shrinking. Small steps like this mean you’ll be spending money less often!

Sharing What You Don’t Need

Even if you think something no longer has value or purpose, someone may find good use for it! There are obvious things like clothing or furniture that you may no longer use or need that can go to charities that resell them and use funds for community needs or job training and placement. But what about things like broken guitar strings, left-over kitchen tile from a remodeling project, or a flat bike tire? Freecycle is a national community-based program where people can place offer or wanted postings to find or get rid of something. Before you buy something new, why not check and see if someone in your neighborhood might have just the thing. Perfectly good items find new homes every day through this community sharing effort – and they stay out of the landfill! And free is a pretty good price for something you need!


Most table scraps still make their way into the kitchen trash can. What you may not know is that organic material in an airtight plastic bag creates methane, and methane is about 30% more potent than CO2. Some communities have added compost pickup, while other communities are setting up local composts to spare the cost and carbon of trucking the scraps elsewhere. If you like to garden, you might want to try your own compost for an organic boost. Composting what you can will help reduce the warming gases of climate change.


There are so many single-use items we can replace with versions we could reuse. It just takes a little focus and intention. We can use items such as grocery bags, produce bags, and plastic containers more than once. If items are intact and not mucked up, why not rinse and reuse? Replace items typically purchased for single use (i.e., water bottles, shampoo, laundry detergent) with refillable options.

Nature Rights and Recycling

From the standpoint of nature rights and earth law, getting to zero waste works to rectify some of the practices that have altered ecosystems. The planet and all creates have a right to live without threats to sustainability. Continued burial of human generated waste within nature has led to the acidification and plastic-polluted oceans to where we have “dead zones,” poisoned groundwater, sewage-laden rivers, and land not suitable for consumable harvests. Significantly reducing waste works to prevent damage to nature and our planet.

The fastest way to get to a zero-waste target is through policy. But we can’t wait for that. In the interim, every individual’s common-sense efforts can make a difference as we all work to reduce carbon and make community resources go farther. It’s time to elevate Recycling 2.0!

To join the growing global movement for Earth Law:

Helga Luest, M.A., is a senior communications professional who is certified in climate change and health from the Yale School of Public Health. She recently joined the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.