Why Bother to Recycle? This is an interesting question I hear often and is not necessarily asked idly. Every day, we have something new we can buy that replaces what was already on the shelf and/or promises to improve our lives — and is made of some kind of plastic!

Of course, not all plastic is born equal, and plastics of various sorts have indeed made our lives easier, and often even safer. Glass breaks easily, for example, while plastic containers do not. All of it, however, eventually breaks down, especially in the ocean, where an enormous percentage of our plastics eventually end up. Water is as close as we come to a universal solvent, and it will ultimately dissolve, or at least disperse most plastics into microplastic pieces that are ingested by marine life and then moved up the food chain to also affect the health of humans. I am not aware of any conscious scientist who would seriously dispute those findings.

On the other hand, we cannot simply declare our homes and our lives to be suddenly “plastic-free.” What we can do is look for alternatives to plastic, which are actually getting easier to find, or even make yourself. Household things like stepstools, for example, can be made from plastic or from wood or metal. So, we choose the non-plastic alternative. The thin plastic (or even the newer compostable) bags for vegetables at the grocery are not needed if you bring along a washable mesh bag to use instead. Cooking spoons, scrapers, and ladles can be made of many things other than plastic. In households without small children, more of our containers could be made from glass or metal.

Nobody needs another list from me of specific do’s and don’ts, but if we all start to think “outside the plastic” when we shop, we can sharply reduce the amount of plastic we consume.

The caution here is that we need to replace plastic with substances we can recycle or compost locally. So far, bamboo, so-called “compostable plastic,” and some products that are labeled “can be mixed with Number 2 plastic” are not recyclable locally because the mills that would do the actual recycling cannot handle the plastics, and the “compostable” plastics and bamboo items usually require such specialized conditions that our local organics recyclers cannot handle them either. Skip the exotics and go with basic materials!

Happily, the economics of recycling are moving ever more in our favor. For as long as I can recall, it has been so much cheaper to simply dump stuff in a landfill than to recycle or re-use it, that the world has grown into that mode of dealing with waste. That has changed, and Brunswick is in the process of changing waste processors in part because we were able to show substantial cost savings as a result of the switch. That’s true even when we consider the added cost of transporting materials to Portland, instead of West Bath. We talk more about specifics of that in others of these columns.

The Recycle Bin is a weekly column on what to recycle, what not to recycle, and why, in Brunswick. The public is encouraged to submit questions by email to [email protected] Harry Hopcroft is a member of the Brunswick Recycling and Sustainability Committee.

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