We all know that we should recycle, but recycling is actually a more complex issue than you might think.

Basic recycling into a standard recycle bin includes clean metals, paper/cardboard, glass, and plastics. Unfortunately, if a recycling bin gets contaminated with non-recyclables, the entire bin’s contents will get thrown out. So make sure you’ve got the right bin!

Want to double-check your recycling skills? Check out this recycling overview.

 

Downcycling and other problems

Recycling all of our recyclables rather than sending them to landfill is helpful and important, but recycling is not a 100% cure-all. After all, the recycling process takes energy, and oftentimes, that energy comes from nonrenewable fossil fuel sources. Not to mention, the recycling process can generate pollution and toxic waste, and the energy costs of transporting recyclable materials can be significant.

 Workers sorting recycling at a recycling center

Workers sorting recycling at a recycling center

Additionally, not all materials are equal in the eyes of the recycling center, and some materials can be recycled much more effectively than others. To capture this idea in a word, we can talk about “downcycling,” which describes how recycling a material yields a product of reduced quality and functionality. An aluminum can be recycled with minimal reduction in its quality through recycling since it essentially just gets melted and reformed. However, materials like paper and plastic get downcycled with a much greater cost to quality. 

Do you know where your recycling at UCLA goes? A lot of it goes to the Allan Company recycling center in Santa Monica.  

 Paper recyclables at the Allan Company recycling center in Santa Monica (Photo credit: Austin Yu) 

Paper recyclables at the Allan Company recycling center in Santa Monica (Photo credit: Austin Yu) 

 

E-waste

 An e-waste dump polluting a lake in Agbogbloshie, Ghana

An e-waste dump polluting a lake in Agbogbloshie, Ghana

We handle and see the cardboard boxes, glass bottles, or aluminum cans in recycling bins all the time, but not everything that should be recycled belongs in the recycling bin on the street corner. Electronic waste, commonly called “e-waste,” requires specific recycling processes that only e-waste recycling centers can provide. E-waste takes the form of broken or outdated computers, batteries, cell phones, tablets, cameras, televisions, radios, keyboards, etc. that consumers discard. 

 Women in Guiyu, China pick out precious metals from dumped e-waste

Women in Guiyu, China pick out precious metals from dumped e-waste

In the tech age and with planned obsolescence a routine business practice, United States consumers generate a lot of e-waste, and an alarmingly high proportion of it never gets recycled. Worse yet, the vast majority of it actually gets shipped overseas and dumped in other countries including China, Ghana, and India, where e-waste is poisoning people through toxic exposure and polluting groundwater supplies.

 Two people harvest metal scraps from e-waste in Ghana

Two people harvest metal scraps from e-waste in Ghana

 

Upcycling Through Art

These artists are taking a stand by creating inspiring and beautiful art that makes a political statement.

Vik Muniz

 One of Muniz's trash portraits, made entirely from trash collected from Jardim Gramacho

One of Muniz's trash portraits, made entirely from trash collected from Jardim Gramacho

Muniz returned to his native Brazil to the largest garbage dump in the world, Jardim Gramacho, on the outskirts of Rio de Janiero. He worked with a group of catadores—people who live at the dump and pick recyclables from the garbage for a living—to create large-scale trash sculptures which he photographed from above. 

 Muniz working on a trash portrait from a platform above

Muniz working on a trash portrait from a platform above

The people depicted in the trash images are the catadores he worked with. Muniz pledged to return all of the proceeds from the photographs back to the catadores. Want to see more? The documentary “Wasteland” captures the journey. Here's a link to the trailer

 Catadores at Jardim Gramacho wait to collect trash from a dump truck

Catadores at Jardim Gramacho wait to collect trash from a dump truck

 

Ellen Driscoll

Driscoll uses HDPE plastic (what most milk and water gallon bottles are made of) to portray the twenty-first century oil economy through sculpture. Driscoll carefully cleans, cuts, and then manipulates the plastic to construct plastic landscapes. The opaque plastic gives them an ethereal, ghostly quality. 

 Recognize these components of a plastic gallon milk container? 

Recognize these components of a plastic gallon milk container? 

She made a floating bricolage, called "Distant Mirrors," that presents a mirror image of North America surrounded by five countries with oil fields that source crude oil to the United States (Canada, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Venezuela). As part of her installation, Driscoll set the work afloat the surface of the Providence River.

 "Distant Mirrors" floating down the Providence River

"Distant Mirrors" floating down the Providence River

 

What can you do?

E3 runs an e-waste campaign that’s always looking for volunteers to help with e-waste collection on campus. Come by the weekly E3 meeting or check out the website for more information.  If you don’t have the time to get involved in the campaign, be sure to still use the e-waste collection containers located around campus and spread the word! 

You can also try your own hand at crafting some trash art. Your trash and recycle bins will offer you a bounty of materials. Plus, it's a great way to make yourself more aware of just how much waste you generate on a day to day basis. For Earth Month, E3 is hosting its annual sustainable art competition. Prizes are not decided yet, but in the past, Trader Joe's gift cards are usually in the mix! 

 

Still Curious?

Want to learn more about trash and the people who deal with it? Here’s some documentaries to check out.   

Wasteland —see how Vic Muniz and the catadores created the trash portraits.

Ghana: Digital Dumping Ground from PBS Frontline/World— Learn about the impacts of e-waste in Ghana (it's free to watch).

Plastic Paradise — learn about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the floating island of garbage that's the size of Texas.

E-Wasteland — learn about how our exported e-waste negatively affects people overseas. (You can watch this film free online with the option to make a donation.)





 

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