Zero Waste for Cleaner Air
CFET employees had the chance to visit the Burlington County recycling facility a few weeks ago. Big thanks to Ann Moore who gave us a tour and generously answered all of our questions about how the recycling industry works. This visit was spurned by our curiosity about how our waste handling systems function and is part of our continued information gathering efforts around air quality. How does recycling connect to air quality? Well in our community of Camden, any waste that does not get diverted out of the waste stream ends up getting burned in our local incinerator, so any means of diverting waste away from our incinerator means less pollution for our neighbors and grabs our attention.
The Burlington County facility processes 175 tons/day and 90% of that is captured as usable raw materials like glass, aluminum cans, and PET that then make their way into the commodities market. We are happy to see these materials getting an extended life and support recycling as a necessary part of any sustainable system. However, the public should know that recycling is not a panacea. Recycling can be difficult for facilities to manage because there is widespread consumer confusion about what is and what is not recyclable – in no small part due to deceptive labeling. Manufacturers of soon-to-be waste also do not coordinate with recyclers to make sure that their container designs can actually make it through the sorting process correctly – meaning some “recyclable” containers that are made from several laminated materials are actually impossible to recycle. In addition, although things like paper and aluminum have strong existing domestic sources for re-use and so are able to command some resale value, many of the recyclables collected have little or no value on the open market and depending on the region of the country recycling sorters can struggle to find places willing to take what they have collected. These issues have intensified since China, long the destination for much of the USA and Europe’s recyclables, closed its doors to the world’s refuse in 2018.
Ultimately, our waste problems are not going to be solved by through increasingly complex methods of dealing with our incredible amounts of trash. What we need to do is move toward a system that does not produce single use products or other unnecessary types of waste in the first place, a system that actually produces no waste at all…. This system is called zero waste. Zero waste requires a cultural change and does not rely on technological fixes. It means getting rid of the disposable, throw away mentality. With a zero waste system useful organic materials are turned into compost, consumer products are made to be durable, easy to disassemblable and repairable, and any products that do need to eventually be thrown away need to have a clear path to being easily recycled. In this system, producers of goods will need to take responsibility for the waste they are producing, a cost that is currently born by the public.
There is a lot to cover on this issue, and we plan to start incorporating zero waste principles into our educational efforts and materials alongside our information about air quality and environmental justice. The production of waste is strongly connected to EJ as the most vulnerable communities worldwide are the places that ultimately collect, sort, haul, burn, bury or otherwise live with our garbage. We feel that it is important to be solutions minded and help to imagine a better future while continuing to make our strong criticisms of the unjust system as it currently exists. For more information about zero waste, please download this helpful manual created by our friends at GAIA: https://www.no-burn.org/wp-content/uploads/ZWC-Manual_20200725-1.pdf
About the Grantee
The Center for Environmental Transformation (CFET) manages three gardens in Camden. CFET has an innovative youth program that uses urban agriculture to develop young minds and teaches healthy eating. We host service learning retreats focused on the environment and food justice and have recently began focusing on community organizing around environmental justice issues in our neighborhood.