Students should stop treating recycling as the solution

A person at a cafe considering a paper and a plastic cup
Annika Constantino /Staff

Caffe Strada, Café Milano, Free Speech Movement Café and Yali’s Café are places that we all love and that I have gotten to know well (or at least, that my wallet has gotten to know well) over the past few years in Berkeley. In between classes, hordes of students clutching single-use coffee cups in one hand and plastic-boxed kale salads in the other bustle around campus, oblivious to the environmental and social implications associated with the unsuspecting disposable cups and wrappers.

Despite the air of environmental awareness present on campus, it seems as if students are not connecting their own habits with the chant many of us tirelessly repeated in elementary school: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”

Pale green cups labeled “EcoProducts” are a notable local feature that screams, “We’re progressive!” Apparently, many cup-carriers here at UC Berkeley have forgotten that at the end of the day, a single-use cup is still single-use. While “compostable plastic” surely sounds nice, virtually no facilities have the capacity to break these down, including the very company serving the city of Berkeley. As a result, the rise of trendy “compostable” packaging might be antithetical to the sustainable purpose it purportedly serves by further promoting a throwaway culture. Whether intended for landfill, recycling or even compost, all of these products can drastically taint the health of our environments — especially when they are improperly disposed of.

State policies increasingly acknowledge that simple consumptive choices can help protect our cuddly, innocent animal friends. This sentiment was underscored when a video of a cute turtle with a straw stuck in its nose went viral, moving millions to advocate for and successfully pass a plastic straw ban. Undoubtedly, this type of collective action should certainly be lauded and emulated. Although the health of our oceans is unquestionably critical, active citizens should think beyond the safety of sea animals and consider the health implications associated with waste on humans.

Waste management problems permeate the fabric of domestic health equity issues. Skin and blood infections, respiratory illnesses, and diseases transmitted through organisms that feed on rubbish are just a small handful of the many occupational hazards faced by those who handle general waste. In addition, leaks from waste can contaminate soil and water streams, insidiously poisoning unaware — or disenfranchised — downstream populations. Landfills, as well as other treatment, storage and disposal facilities, are disproportionately placed in low-income communities of color. These waste sites do not simply release unpleasant odors — they often release endotoxins, aerosols and toxic gases at rates hazardous to human health. As a result, vulnerable populations that live by these facilities can generally expect to score worse on health indicators ranging from cancer rates to frequency of emergency room visits due to asthma.

To make matters more trashy, China’s 2017 National Sword restrictions on imported plastic and paper waste have drastically truncated the market for recyclables. Good-hearted U.S. citizens continue to divert their trash from dirty black bins to the more favorable cobalt blue, unaware that market conditions have caused these efforts to be nearly fruitless. The United State’s waste management infrastructure is simply not equipped to recycle the bulk of what it collects; in the face of no good options, companies and municipalities across the country are resorting to landfilling and incinerating recyclables as waste storehouses overflow with excess. Although we have yet to see the full impacts of these changes, some cities such as Chester, Pennsylvania have already reported an increased release of particulate matter by nearby waste facilities after heightened incineration rates.

When you aren’t put face to face with the heaping mounds of trash you’ve created, it’s easy to avoid taking responsibility for them. And when placed side by side with midterms and project deadlines, UC Berkeley students might find it hard to prioritize global waste issues.

Nonetheless, we all have the ability to lower the volume of goods we send to the waste stream. Instead of patting ourselves on the back for buying recyclable or compostable products, we should refuse to create more waste in the first place. If we want to protect the health of sea turtles, workers in waste management and fenceline communities already burdened with other social inequities, we should all more intensively consider the potential impacts associated with our every purchase. And those green “compostable cups?” Forget them. If we truly want to hit Zero Waste 2020 and set a standard of conscious consumerism, we should all pledge to bring our own mugs and forks to Caffe Strada, Café Milano, Free Speech Movement Café and Yali’s Café.

Kristina Schagane is a UC Berkeley undergraduate studying environmental economics and policy.