Recycling guilt is an inevitable and serious psychosocial complex contracted when living in the Pacific Northwest, a condition which can cause crippling shame, paralyzing confusion and deep self-contempt. Hello, my name is Tara, and I am a Habitual Recycler.
This condition causes behaviors that can be puzzling and laughable to those unfamiliar with its symptoms, those from say, oh, I don’t know, the South. I recently traveled to Nashville for a conference, and found myself anxiously carting around a water bottle, a soda bottle, another water bottle, all for lack of a reassuring blue recycle bin. Where could I put them? What was I supposed to do with them?
The head-spinning confusion was aggravated by my co-existing guilt for even drinking water from a plastic water bottle*, instead of a cool, BPA-free stainless steel one like all the cool hipsters do. But thankfully those symptoms subsided relatively quickly when I tasted the water in my hotel. Ewww.
Of course, in time you begin to master your symptoms, and you become an expert at recycling cereal boxes, yogurt cups, and the box your heartburn medication comes in. (Probably wouldn’t have heartburn if I wasn’t so angsty about recycling……) You accept the difficult fact that cardboard Popsicle boxes can’t be recycled (wet strength, Google it) and you even begin questioning produce purchases from Costco because of the EXCESSIVE packaging. (If you are from the South, or are my mother, you may be getting anxious and dizzy at this point. Take a deep breath, you’ll be fine.)
But certain struggles remain, and I am here to share my stories with you in the hopes you can avoid my mistakes.
First I must confess there is one battle I’ve yet to win since tasting the glory, the rapturous glory that is a Sonic Diet Coke with Diet Cherry. That huge styrofoam cup (of COURSE I have to get the huge size, silly question) haunts me, mocks my weakness, stabs me with visions of dying seals and weeping children and a not really Native American actor with a single tear running down his stoic cheek.
But the Diet Coke Diet Cherry calls to me, and at best I can only contemplate bringing in my own refillable cup and begging for mercy. That battle is still to be fought, that victory not yet mine to claim.
But can we talk about pizza boxes? I thought I had this one, confidently tossing my pizza boxes in the recycling bin outside, sure that I wasn’t REALLY supposed to just throw them away, send them to a landfill. (Cue crying babies, screams of horror.) But why was my local recycling company so intent on having me wreck the environment?
I mean, sure, don’t throw the box in there with the pizza still stuck to it, that’s gross. But if I carefully scrape off the cheese, shake out the crumbs, that’s enough, right? A responsible consumer such as myself can surely be entrusted to recycle a huge, wasteful pizza box, right? Those rules are for the unreformed, people who still buy cases of bottled water to drink from home, standing in the kitchen next to their fancy refrigerators with dispensers of chilled, filtered water. Not for me, not for a skilled recycler such as myself who actually cuts out the annoying little box tops for education before flattening my Cocoa Puff box, right?
Yet still it nagged at me, so in an effort to ease my angst I set out to conduct extensive research on the issue. Well, you know, I Googled it. Turns out, grease from the pizza box can really muck up the water-based process used to break down cardboard in the recycling process. Even the Farmer’s Almanac agrees that a cheese-free box can still ruin a whole giant batch of cardboard recycling if it is more than a little greasy or oily. Then you really ARE killing the environment and baby seals and what not.
Frequently quoted solutions emphasize that only the greasy parts are bad. So cutting them off, or even just ripping the lid away from the bottom, means you can recycle the clean part. Great, right? And if the box is too greasy, or you want to reuse before you recycle, this website has 5 fun ideas for boxes, including a cool table top easel for arty kids, a fort and a throne for a pizza king.
So rest easy, recyclers. Me, I’m going to go test out a pizza box S’mores oven.
*Except in rare circumstances, drinking from a plastic water bottle in the U.S. is unnecessary and wasteful, especially when 1 in 6 of us on Earth have no access to clean drinking water. That should cause guilt! Want more info? Check out waterafrica.org.