What to Look for in a Consumer Recycling News Story

Recycling stories are present everywhere in the world of the internet, and I am starting to notice that some are better than others.  And some are worse.  I’ve developed a set of typologies, just for the heck of it, to give myself some structure, based on the Seven Sins of Greenwashing that was an internet thing a few years ago.

First: Read this environmental news story: https://inhabitat.com/why-are-toothbrushes-so-hard-to-recycle/.

You’ll notice the classic Set Up:  In a remote wilderness location a HUGE number of small every-day waste items appears due to insidious disposal habits.  Toothbrushes are a perfect topic!  In the Set Up there might be a: To Make It Worse item like this one: For good health one must use A LOT of these disposable items.  I have noticed that dentists and especially their dental assistants push toothbrush replacement and give them away like candy.

Next is the list of Factoids about the item: It’s a mixture of materials that are impossible to separate and recycle effectively.  This is typically a hook for ‘true recyclers’ to get us thinking.  But often we run into a Related Distraction like this one: a Terracycle.com option for you to pay to mail some otherwise un-recyclable items on an individual basis because you are smart and care and were simply not aware of this opportunity!  This is a burn for me, as it clarifies that single stream recycling is just for the basics, and that anything like toothbrushes is contamination for single stream and must be dealt with on your own and at your expense!

No self-respecting author would miss explaining the obligatory ReUse OptionReuse toothbrushes for cleaning things.  I guess there are people who don’t try to reuse things, but I doubt they are taking the time to read this article!  Reusers like me reuse toothbrushes for cleaning stuff all the time.  Still, it just delays sending them to the landfill.

Then we’ll see the inevitable list of Better ChoicesProducts are described listing their attributes and drawbacks (like bamboo toothbrushes), and there’s always a drawback, not the least of which is higher price or some additional effort required.  I guess one could trim off the nylon bristles in a bamboo toothbrushes into the trash, and then compost the handle and it would only have a tiny bit of plastic just hanging around in the soil for years, which is good but not great. I compost at home, but my city does not pick up food waste nor offer a food waste drop off location. So, hooray for me, but other readers are left in the lurch. 

Which brings up the Not Mentioned Drawback:  Compostable alternatives are not helpful when composting is not an option.  Worse than the bamboo toothbrush is the compostable clamshell for takeout food. I compost mine, but what about the vast majority of folks who don’t compost?  Has everyone heard that the landfill doesn’t exactly decompose biodegradable material very well?  As in the landfill researchers from National Geographic who dug up 50 year old newspapers and read them?  Bananas that are still bananas?  Obviously, something biodegrades because we are all blest with methane venting from landfills, which are a big mess and very few people know the full backstory because it would cause a lot of discomfort if everyone knew.

Now we need to be on guard for Worse Choices disguised as better choices: Something more complicated with a ‘reusable side’ (electric toothbrushes), with undisclosed inevitable disposal issues.  Please!  What a terrible idea to suggest a more complicated, harder to recycle item than an electronic version of the very plastic thing we are trying to avoid!  Not to mention that the toothbrush attachment is disposable plastic and needs to be replaced just as frequently as the low-tech version.  And we might also find an Off Topic Problem: Consumer rechargeable batteries!  These are recyclable in VERY FEW MARKETS. Or you can pay to ship them to be recycled (which CAN happen), currently at about a dollar per pound.  This should be its own article, because battery materials are very recyclable, the industry just doesn’t want to do it.

Keep your eyes open for a Subsequent Related DistractionAs if making your own toothpaste solves the toothbrush problem. BTW, my dentist says baking soda is terrible for teeth.

More often than not, at the end of the article we end up with No Real Conclusions: Yep, that was the end of the story.  Nothing about Extended Producer Responsibility (where manufacturers contribute financially to a better disposal option).  No summary review of the suggestions for the “optimal choice”.  No observation of other countries solutions, which are very often more advanced than ours.  Many articles like this are unfulfilling for the folks who understand the gravity of the situation.  And they don’t educate the ‘newbie’ all that well.

Another issue often not addressed is the issue of ScaleToothbrushes are like straws, or plastic cutlery, or clamshells, and on and on.  What ubiquitous item do you want to take on today?  These articles serve a purpose to zoom in on one item, but when you zoom back out and see the scale of the problem, then what difference does a couple of hundred thousand toothbrushes really make?  By 2050 the oceans will have more plastic than fish.  If that isn’t chilling, I don’t know what is. Please make sure your toothbrush goes in the ground ladies and gentlemen!

You might be wondering if you should believe any article about things like this.  Of course you should take it with a grain of salt.  Be skeptical.  Add it to your mental portfolio and compare to others you read.  Articles like this are legion!  Use the tags above to analyze the article.  And clearly, most of these conundrums do NOT have solutions!  There are lots of perceived solutions, some solutions that work for some people, and some that would work if people would just think like you do!  Some would work if the manufacturers would change their product design (Anyone heard of the book Cradle to Cradle?)  So the writer hedged!  Situation normal.  It’s beyond your control.  Go back to whatever you were doing.

You might have to read enough of these articles to begin to see the typology I addressed.  At first these stories pique your awareness and you derive insight.  Then time passes and you test hypotheses, and nothing really improved.  You read another article and you start seeing that these authors are doing the best they can, given the information they uncovered.  Still, the answers remain unfulfilling.  Then you might read a few books on the subject and hear from other authorities, and you might know more about the topic than the writer appears to know.  Two suggestions to up your game:  Go to YouTube and watch the 19 minute “Story of Stuff.”  Annie Leonard is a genius. In addition, a recent and thoughtful book is Inconspicuous Consumption: the Environmental Impact You Don’t Know You Have, by Tatiana Schlossberg (a granddaughter of JFK).  Oh, and there are more books.  I have a long booklist…

Meanwhile, what is the best solution at the moment that yours truly, Mr. Critic, has to offer?  Surprise!  It’s one of the Related Distractions!  Unfortunately, it’s the best option until we evolve: get a box from Terracycle.com and start a community effort to collect the toothbrushes and send them off to be recycled.  Terracycle.com will do it right.  I’ll be doing that since I opened my big mouth.  I have a Terracycle.com “Razors & Blades” box here at the GBRC, and you are welcome to drop by with your disposable razors and drop them in it.  Soon I’ll have a toothbrush box next to it.

By 2050 the oceans will have more plastic than fish.  If that isn’t chilling, I don’t know what is.  So make sure your toothbrush goes in the ground ladies and gentlemen!