What about recyclables?

I'm still ruminating about garbage- specifically, recycling. I'm We haven't had access to the internet in a couple of weeks, so I can't see if we have any comments on the garbage post below- my musing is posted through our high frequency radio. I confess to being curious what people think about it and am hoping to see a few when we are able to get online in a few days. Not hinting, though. Really!

Recycling is a big part of waste management for most people at home, and a subject that was left mostly out of the prior post. Getting used to *not* recycling was by far one of the most jarring transitions to cruising once we left the U.S. In our experience to date, recycling is rarely available. With the exception of ingrained programs for bottle re-use, we saw no evidence of infrastructure to support collection and processing in Mexico- just efforts at the local level in a few isolated places. I recall exactly 3 places from the thousands of miles we cruised along the coast where there was any formal separation/collection scheme in place. The flip side of this is the informal recycling: families who live literally on garbage, and survive by picking and reselling any scrap items of value. Some may claim this is crudely effective, but I don't think anyone who has seen the way these people live can make the judgment that this approach should be condoned.

Back in our "normal" pre-cruising life, a significant portion of the waste our family produced was recyclable. Putting things in that recycling bin feels good: you're not adding to the landfill, right? I'm not so sure. I think that recycling is mostly a false panacea. How much of this trash- what shoreside folks would put in a recycling bin, and so ease from their conscience- is ever well managed after the initial use anyway? Most of it is downcycled to lower grade plastic, and this is not an indefinite loop. Eventually it has the same incinerator/landfill fate, and meanwhile, there is a petroleum cost added to each step. As more jurisdictions require residents to recycle, we hear about overburdened recycling centers and recyclables heading to the landfill anyway. We saw bins on Hiva Oa in the Marquesas for collecting plastic bottles. It's great that they're collected, but you really have to wonder what happens to the bottles that do get collected. An island with a population of a couple of thousand, are they really processed? Is it possible worth the cost to ship or fly them elsewhere to process? I guess I'm a skeptic.

So what do we do? Mostly, try to use less. We try to make choices about the type of packaging we purchase. In Mexico, I was really excited about the paperboard boxes known as Tetra packaging, used for growing numbers of typically canned items on the shelves- everything from salsa to corn. Since we need a lot of preserved food on board for long term stores, it seemed like a great solution. No BPA, said some sources. No plastic, said others. I don't know about the BPA (and I'm suspicious of corporate messaging anyway- thanks a lot, Sigg), but the diced tomatoes we purchased have a bonded plastic lining inside.

Once again the skeptic in me looks askance.

Totem is currently anchored in a sweet little bay on Waya island, in Fiji's Yasawa group. We'll be back in "internet-land" in a few days and I can't wait to share some more upbeat tales and scenes from island life!

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5 Responses to What about recyclables?

  1. Okeebc September 24, 2010 at 7:15 am #

    It, recycling, only works if the place your visiting has a recycling program. Do small remote islands have a recycling program?

  2. Anonymous September 25, 2010 at 10:26 am #

    I think a landfill for plastic is a better option than the open ocean. As a professional engineer, currently land locked in Afghanistan, we are actively working to get small methane digester’s up and running to process the local garbage. Currently about 25% of the Kabuls waste is picked up and taken to the landfill, that leaves 75% being picked up by the poorest of the poor. Our digesters seperate out metals and glass, everything else goes through them. The methane is used to power small generators which is then sold in small micor grids. The byproducts are then shipped to the landfill. This is not a major solution, but it provides a few families with clean water, we require trash haulers men women and children to shower and when available we distribute free protective overalls and shoes and gloves. I think ground up plastics in landfills are a small impact compared to them floating in the pacific and Atlantic trash swirls. Keep up the great topics. I am living the dream through your posts. My matra is two more years and I will be following in your footsteps or slip stream.

  3. Behan September 25, 2010 at 6:28 pm #

    Okeebc, we seen recycling on the remote islands only a couple of times. Anonymous, the landfull is certainly a better option than the ocean…and we saw plenty of plastic floating around in paradise. How did I not get into the great gyres here?

  4. rebecca September 26, 2010 at 3:03 am #

    After spending the last 6 months picking up and cataloging plastic from our local beaches, and talking to some solid waste experts, I really think recycling is greenwashing when it comes to plastics. Even when plastic items can be recycled into new products, it almost always requires the addition of virgin plastic nurdles. Recycling is a great idea when there is a sustainable closed loop, but there is no closed loop when it comes to plastics. And even if we bury the stuff in landfills, I’m almost positive it will eventually find its way to the oceans, or into our food webs. I’ll stop there – I’m literally so obsessed with plastic these days, it’s what I dream about. Ugh.

  5. maryonchance October 2, 2010 at 3:56 am #

    The plastics subject is a tough one because so many times plastic is our friend on boats, e.g. tupperware, ziplocs, but then we’re usually re-using it. Our marina in Alameda, CA has a huge recycling bin and two trash bins. Stuff is almost never separated out correctly. Same story at work where we have a “composting” bin which gets plastic and foil added to it at times. I think as long as our garbage gets magically taken away for us, many of us don’t worry about it too much. Must be eye-opening when you’re really faced with your garbage, making room for it on your boat.

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