Recycling During a Pandemic

“We don’t need a handful of people doing Zero Waste perfectly.  We need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”  –Anne-Marie Bonneau, “Zero Waste Chef”

We are hearing a lot about the concepts of “Zero Waste” and “Circular Economy.”  What do they mean, besides catch phrases that show you care about the environment?  Are they even possible to achieve?  What do they signify for a small, environmentally-friendly municipality like Media?  Why are we even talking about Zero Waste during a pandemic?

Media has been a strong recycling town for over a decade.  Now, many of us are home 24/7, and our green bins are brimming on the curbs Tuesday and Thursday mornings, our recycling days.  About 80% of our households recycle, and the pandemic does not appear to have impacted that.  

Commercial recycling compliance has always been lower than residential. But right now, our amazing Media businesses  are struggling to survive.  Many restaurants are staying afloat by providing lovely takeout meals through this terrible disruption in our lives.  So this article is not going to be a scold about how we need to demand recyclable/compostable bags and takeout containers during the pandemic.  Our business owners have enough to contend with.  Media residents are worried for them and wondering if, when the pandemic is over, we will have the same magical food and retail offerings we have enjoyed so dearly.  What will Dining Under the Stars look like?  Will it have to be year-round now to achieve social distancing?  (Will we have to eat outside in the winter???)

It is a given that we are good recyclers, and we care about our community and the environment.  Can we do more?

Recycling Schedule: Media Borough recycles weekly. The west side of the Borough (everyone west of Jackson Street) is collected on Tuesdays. The east side of the Borough (everyone east of Jackson Street) is collected on Thursdays. If collection falls on New Year’s Day, Independence Day or Christmas, the Recycling will be collected the following day. 

State Street Trash & Recycling: State Street trash and recycling bins are full to overflowing—this was true before the pandemic and is even more so now, as takeout is the main dining out choice.  Public Works empties the bins daily but cannot keep up.  Help us all out by taking your State Street food trash and recyclables home with you when possible.  If you need an additional recycling bin please contact the borough at 610-566-5210, ext. 219.

Zero Waste is a concept that holds that the more trash we can keep out of incinerators and landfills, the less pollution of our air and water and the less squandering of our natural resources.  Can we actually get to Zero Waste?  Probably not.  The term is more of a rallying cry for reducing the harmful effects of current systems of waste disposal than a realistic goal.

Circular Economy SMALLA  promising related concept is the idea of working toward a “circular economy”—a model in which waste is minimized by planning in advance how materials can be reused and recycled at a product’s end of life rather than trying to figure that out after the fact.  Some industries are looking at how to incorporate “cradle-to-cradle” (i.e., circular economic) design into their products.  For example, a number of shampoo companies sell their products in biodegradable bottles instead of plastic and have switched to sustainable ingredients.

We may have heard the slogan, “Renew, Reuse, Recycle.”  Many of us are reminded of lessons from our parents or grandparents about the virtues of avoiding waste.   We keep trash out of the waste stream by taking our used clothing and household goods to the Media Free Store, Green Drop and Goodwill; trading or exchanging items through social media sites like Facebook and Next Door; or finding ways to repurpose old things instead of throwing them out. We recycle. The Media Borough Food Waste Compost Pilot Program allows participants to compost discarded food.

Then we see the YouTube videos of giant islands of plastic trash floating in the Pacific Ocean.  We read the articles about microplastics, broken down over time in the ocean, permeating the fish on our plates.  We shudder and turn to the daily concerns of our lives, not sure what we can do about it.

Single-use plastic is the bane of trash pollution.  Most plastics are accepted by recyclers, but they are not endlessly recyclable, as are glass and aluminum.  Plastic bottles can be turned into synthetic carpets, clothing and benches, but these items are not themselves recyclable, and will end up in an incinerator or a landfill.  While incinerators employ pollution controls, they still put out harmful emissions, contributing to high levels of asthma and other serious pulmonary problems of the populations living near them.  Landfills pose water and air pollution problems and are not the best use of diminishing open space.

What can we do?  Most of us are flat-out; working and caring for families takes up nearly all the space in our schedules and our heads. We may lack the energy for letter-writing campaigns to our representatives.  Stories of Zero Waste gurus, who can fit their annual trash accumulation into a 1-quart Mason jar, perhaps make us feel guilty, angry or just deflated.  

The problem is larger than we are.  Government leadership in acknowledging and addressing the problem is pivotal to a solution.  But public opinion and behavior has always provided the energy for wide-ranging cultural shifts.  The answer lies in reducing our demand for plastics, one small step at a time.  Can we substitute another material for one plastic that we currently use?  Glass food storage containers? Reusable water bottles? Takeout coffee in your own travel mug?  

Does the urgency and stress of the pandemic mean that we cannot afford to think of such things?  Some stores are not allowing reusable grocery bags to reduce the spread of COVID-19.  Some officials call for disposable utensils and plates in restaurants.  Others counter—Why not just wash and sanitize properly?  

Does it seem hopeless?  Look at the big picture.  What do we want?  The current pandemic shows us, if nothing else, the danger of not taking notice of the signals, of being unprepared.  What other warnings do we need to be listening to?  What do we need to do to live responsibly for the health of our world and the future of our children?

The Media Borough Compost Pilot Program: For the past two years Media Borough has piloted a food waste pickup program with a limited number of interested residents.  The food waste is taken to the Kitchen Harvest Compost Farm at Linvilla Orchards, where it is transformed into rich fertilizer for farms and gardens.  The pilot will be extended to the end of 2020.  Borough Council will determine if it is possible to move the pilot to a borough-wide program in 2021.