As recycling services are suspended across the country, how do we stay sustainable?

DSC_0073Story by Anna Schlutt, Staff Writer
Photo courtesy Anna Schlutt

On April 6, Kent County suspended its recycling services due to COVID-19. Counties and cities across the country are doing the same.

The Kent County Public Works Department is still picking up recycling, but all loads are being treated as waste instead of being recycled.

This is because recycling facilities involve more physical contact with waste than most trash workers experience and, because employees often work in close proximity, it makes social distancing difficult.

Consumers now have to decide what to do with their recyclables: treat them as trash, or save them until recycling resumes after the crisis.

Not knowing how long COVID-19 will last makes it difficult to save your recycling. It’s easy to imagine a garage or basement bursting with paper bags just waiting for recycling facilities to reopen. Jessica Eimer-Bowen, Director of Sustainability at Aquinas, has a slightly different solution.

“Another alternative is to just keep recycling, A.K.A. continue to put the items that are recyclable in your recycling,” Eimer-Bowen said.

According to Eimer-Bowen, even though we can’t actually recycle our waste right now, maintaining that habit is still extremely important.

“The minute that you break that habit, the harder it is to jump right back into it,” Eimer-Bowen said.

That means we should keep rinsing out our milk jugs and canned goods, collapsing our cereal boxes, and putting it all out on the curb in our recycling bins. As an added bonus, recycling in Grand Rapids is still free, even though it’s being treated as waste.

It’s important to maintain these habits for the future, but what about the present? For those with more time on their hands, there are plenty of ways to be sustainable during this pandemic.

“This might be the perfect time to start swapping out those single use items for reusable items,” Eimer-Bowen said.

These items might include reusable snack bags or Tupperware, handkerchiefs instead of tissues, dryer balls in place of dryer sheets, or any number of reusable products.

Eimer-Bowen also recommends researching cosmetics through the Environmental Working Group, to find healthy and environmentally friendly products, or figuring out D.I.Y. cleaning products and lotions.

“It’s such a good time to try to start developing healthy habits that are more in line with the environment,” Eimer-Bowen said.

With many young people back at home from school or work, it’s also an ideal time to bring sustainable habits to the whole family.

Eimer-Bowen recommends the dryer as an easy place to start. It’s easy enough to hang up clothes instead of drying them, and it doesn’t require any major purchases. At most, you may need to buy a wire and some clothespins.

Unplugging devices is also a simple change to make. Eimer-Bowen points to laptops as a clear example. Leaving your laptop plugged in, even when it’s fully charged, continues to suck up power. So as an easy fix, just be aware of when your computer is fully charged, and unplug it.

On the whole, it’s good to focus on simple ways to change. Sustainability is important, but Eimer-Bowen believes that during this crisis we need to prioritize self-care before we can put all of our energy into the climate crisis.

“It’s most important for people to take care of themselves, survive, try to develop good coping mechanisms during this time, and try not to stress too much about where the recycling is going,” Eimer-Bowen said.

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