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After you've thrown something away, have you ever wondered where exactly "away" actually is? Here's the thing: it doesn't exist.

Tossing your lunchtime trash - and even your recycling - may often feel like an "out of sight, out of mind" scenario, but most of the time, that's not the case. "We're used to thinking that if we throw something away, it's gone forever," says Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA and the creator of "The Story of Stuff," a critically-acclaimed documentary about consumerism and trash. "If we recycle it, we may feel a bit better. But it's more important that we see where it's all actually going and really understand the impact of our trash."

The average American generates about 5.7 pounds of trash a day, from food waste and food packaging to plastic straws and paper towels. About 55% of our garbage will end up buried in a landfill, emitting harmful methane gases into the air, and 12% will go to incinerators. While 33% may head to recycling plants, with America's extremely low recycling rates, a whopping 91% of all discarded plastic will not even end up getting recycled. And with China -which recycles about half of the world's plastic and paper products - recently implementing a ban on shipments of recyclables from the rest of the world, many countries are now scrambling to figure out what to do with all of their trash.

Credit: Johnny Miller


To the average consumer, recycling more of our trash may seem like a simple solution to the problem. But experts are saying it's not quite the safety net many believe it to be.

According to Darby Hoover, a senior resource specialist at the Natural Resources Defense Council, there are a few reasons why our country's recycling rate has been so low for so long. "What we're putting into our waste stream is changing," Hoover tells us. "It used to be a lot of newspaper and cardboard, but now it's mostly plastic."

Though a lot of plastic looks the same, each variety actually has its own unique properties (such as melting points) that prevent them from all being recycled in the same way, explains Hoover. For this reason, plastic is often much harder to recycle than other materials, like glass. Add to that the fact that recycling laws vary greatly from state to state - let alone city to city - and you're left with one confused consumer that's not quite sure how to sort out their trash.


A Mini Guide to Recycling Plastic
Below are the standard classifications for plastics and how to dispose of each type:

#1 - Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET)
Commonly found in: beverage bottles, detergent and cleaning containers, peanut butter and jam jars
How to Recycle: Most curbside recycling programs will accept this; avoid reusing

#2 - High Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
Commonly found in: milk and water jugs, shampoo bottles, most plastic bags
How to Recycle: Most curbside recycling programs will accept this; can be reused

#3 - Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
Commonly found in: cling wrap, window cleaner bottles, squeeze bottles, cooking oil containers, vinyl pipes, shower curtains, flooring, window frames
How to Recycle: Avoid using, if possible, as few curbside recycling programs will accept these; check your community's guidelines

#4 - Low Density Polyethelene (LDPE)
Commonly found in: bread bags, frozen food bags, coatings for hot beverage cups and paper milk/juice cartons, squeezable bottles, cling wraps
How to Recycle: Some curbside recycling programs will accept this; can be reused

#5 - Polypropylene (PP)
Commonly found in: yogurt and margarine tubs, clouded plastic (straws, etc), cereal and chip bags, disposable diapers, sanitary napkins, outdoor carpets
How to Recycle: Some curbside recycling programs will accept this; can be reused

#6 - Polystyrene (PS)
Commonly found in: rigid varieties (CD cases, disposable cutlery, shaving razors); formed varieties (Styrofoam containers or packaging, building insulation)
How to Recycle: Avoid using, if possible, as few curbside recycling programs will accept these; check your community's guidelines

#7 - Mixed/all others
Commonly: lids, clear plastic cutlerly, electronics, paper receipts, baby bottles
How to Recycle: Avoid using, if possible, as few curbside recycling programs will accept these; check your community's guidelines


In this case, Hoover says we may opt to throw what we think can be recycled into the bin. However, this isn't the best solution either; in fact, it could be more problematic than you think. "If you throw in what you think can be recycled, you may actually risk contaminating the stream," says Hoover. "This can then increase the costs of recycling and sorting in your city." One way to help minimize our waste? Learn the proper do's and don'ts of recycling in your town, says Hoover. (Here's a handy guide to help get you started, plus tips on how to set-up a simple recycyling system in your own home.) Though environmental advocates like Hoover and Leonard are saying we can't, and shouldn't, stop there.



For Adrian Grenier, actor, environmentalist, and founder of the eco-advocacy group Lonely Whale, the solution to curbing our trash may lie in how we see trash in the first place. "Now more than ever do we have this idea of things being disposable," says Grenier, who was recently designated as UN Environment Goodwill Ambassador. "We've become so out of touch with what we throw away. We need to really think about the way we consume - how it affects our own health, and the health of our planet." Among others, Grenier and his team have focused on the issue of single-use plastic pollution, successfully launching last year's "Strawless in Seattle" campaign, the first of its kind. The month-long initiative helped keep over 2.3 million straws out of the metropolitan trash stream and led to a city-wide ban on single-use plastic straws and utensils, to take effect this summer.

TRY: These Alternatives to Single-Use Plastic Straws
compost bin nyc
Credit: Courtesy of NYC Department of Sanitation

Another way to rethink your lunchtime trash: pull out what doesn't belong there. Tackling Mayor Bill de Blasio's mission to have New York City be zero waste by 2030, Kathryn Garcia, the city's Department of Sanitation Commissioner, says we can all curb our garbage by choosing to reuse whenever we can. "This is really the highest standard," she tells us, whether it means bringing your totes to the market instead of using disposable plastic bags, or donating what you don't need to a local non-profit where it can be reused instead of ending up in landfills. "Often times, there is someone, somewhere who wants what you no longer want," says Garcia. "One person's trash really can be someone else's treasure."

Currently, Garcia is also helping to roll out curbside composting to every New York neighborhood, a plan that first kicked off in 2013 and will become one of the nation's largest curbside organics program. In one of the most population-dense cities - and considerably the largest urban waster - in the world, about a third of what New Yorkers are throwing away could actually be composted, but isn't. "What we need are programs in place that make it easy for people to do the right thing."



While solving the trash issue may seem as big as the problem itself, Grenier says not to underestimate your own ability to make a change. "One action may just feel like a drop in the ocean, but with all our drops, we become a powerful force," he says. If you're feeling overwhelmed on where to start, Grenier suggests beginning with something small and familiar, like the plastic straw. "Once you stop using straw, you can't help, but move onto the cup or the lid. Suddenly, you start to see all the ways you can make a positive change."

For example, next time you go on a stroll through the park or along the beach, pick up three pieces of trash you find and dispose of them properly in the garbage bin. Collected more plastic grocery bags than you need? Bag them up and bring them to a participating retailer or local grocery store for recycling.

Even when you're shopping, Hoover says there are simple ways to be more sustainable. "If you're already deciding between two items, trying also thinking ‘Can I get the one with less packaging? What can I do with it after I'm done using it?'" Of course, Hoover understands this isn't always easy. "In a perfect world, it would be," she says, explaining that it shouldn't only be up to consumers to shop smart and more sustainability, but also the job of companies and manufacturers to make this decision easier in the first place. "But we are getting there. Until then, we can all do something positive."

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