All the Waste
We Do Not See

Welcome back, Smart Recyclers! 

As many of our loyal readers will recall, our last newsletter, It Isn’t Waste Until It’s Wasted, had us thinking a lot about our stuff. To recap, we focused on what happens to our stuff “downstream,” after we put it in the trash. We explained Massachusetts’ limited space for trash disposal and laid out some of the reasons why reusing, recycling correctly, or otherwise putting things to better use is so important for our small state. 

Now, what if we told you that the stuff we throw away is just the tip of the iceberg? 

The proverbial iceberg in this case refers to all of the waste we don’t see – the waste created “upstream,” before we buy our products. To put a finer point on this, consider that for every ton of trash we throw away, the processes involved in extracting raw materials, manufacturing products, and getting them to market creates 70 times more waste.

That’s a big iceberg. 🤯 

Looking Upstream

When we talk about “upstream,” we mean everything that went into the making of a product before it gets to the consumer. A 2021 report produced by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Completing the Picture: How the circular economy tackles climate change, calls the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of products, food, and land management the “overlooked emissions.” 

It’s easy to see why these emissions are overlooked. Our system thrives on convenience, and products are marketed to us in ways that make them effortless to consume and toss.  

Let’s use water bottles as an example. In the store, we see crystal-clear bottles full of refreshing water. Ads tell us that pure mountain spring water is essential for good health and the ultimate thirst quencher. And those handy no-spill tops? What could be more convenient to drink from when on the go? Bonus, you can recycle the bottle!

For many of us, that’s the extent to which we think about the bottle. But that bottle’s got a backstory. Let’s “dig” into it. 👷🏽‍

Plastics are typically produced from petroleum (crude oil) that has been extracted from the earth, processed, and manufactured into different types of resin pellets. The pellets are then molded into all sorts of products, including single-use water bottles. This manufacturing process requires energy and water, and then more fossil fuel is needed to deliver products to stores (and sometimes our doors!). That’s a lot of resources to produce a plastic bottle we only use for 15 minutes. And then we throw it away.  

Most of our readers will recycle the bottle (thanks! ✨). But if it goes into the trash or becomes litter, that’s the end of the story for that plastic bottle. This one-way, make-use-toss paradigm is unsustainable. When we don’t reuse and recycle, more resources must be mined from the earth to make new things, and the story repeats. On the other hand, when we recycle, we put resources back into production which reduces the need to extract raw materials. When we reuse, we use fewer new products and keep things out of the trash longer, which reduces waste overall. Hooray!

The Climate Change Connection

Why is this all so important? Because land management and the processes happening upstream – the extraction of raw materials, manufacturing, and transportation of consumer goods and packaging – generate 45% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, which are a primary driver of climate change.

Is a world without trash possible? Robert Kunzig, National Geographic, March 2020

The bar chart above comes from the March 2020 issue of National Geographic, The End of Trash. It shows the total amount of resources that entered the global economy in 2015. The first column shows that the bulk of resources entering the economy (93 billion tons) came from extraction (mining, fracking, etc.), while about 9.3 billion tons came from reused or recycled resources. A staggering 67.4 billion tons was lost as waste (think air and water pollution, rotting food, and trashed surplus). In other words, about 2/3 of our resources are wasted rather than used. And yet this upstream waste, as consequential as it is, often flies under the radar of even the most conscientious consumers.

What Matters to You?

Let’s revisit some questions from our last newsletter.

When it comes to personal action, it can seem that the only thing we control is what we do with our stuff once we’re done with it. But there’s actually more we can do; we just have to take the time to consider what we care about.

If you care about what is sent to landfills, prolong the life of your things by prioritizing repair, purchasing secondhand, and donating or gifting good stuff you’ve outgrown. You can also make purchases with waste reduction in mind. Buying durable, repairable things and refusing single-use or low-quality items, are smart choices that will reduce waste in the long run or prevent it in the first place.  

If you care about the greenhouse gas emissions from transporting goods, try to purchase products manufactured in the US, buy from local retailers instead of online, or buy products made from post-consumer recycled materials.  

If you care about workers and working conditions, look into fair trade companies and resist the temptations of fast fashion.  

Not all of these issues will resonate with everyone, so whatever works for you, works for us! We know that there are many things to consider when deciding what to buy, and that we can’t always make the choices we’d like to make because of other factors like affordability, access, and time. So, we do our best.

That said, we’d like to challenge you, dear readers, to take time to consider what’s important to you as you make your purchases. Can you commit to incorporating just one of these conscientious choices into your decision tree?

Leaning Into Thoughtful Convenience

If you’re overwhelmed, we’re right there with you. An important question for us has always been: How can we prevent or reduce waste but still enjoy the conveniences of modern life?

Luckily for us, with the support of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, communities across the Commonwealth are expanding access to reuse and repair and creating opportunities to dispose of things in responsible ways. 

Here are some fun and easy ways to reduce waste!

  1. Borrow, don’t buy.
  2. Reuse, refill, repair.
  3. Swap until you drop!
  4. Share! Because when you share, you have twice as much.
A Library of Things is a great way to borrow items that you’ll only use a couple of times – like power tools for a DIY project or a projector for a backyard birthday party. Ask your local library if they have a lending section or search for one here.

Repair events are becoming more popular across the state! Volunteers come together with spare parts and tools to help people fix household items. Reach out to your community to see if there are any repair events coming up, or let them know of your interest in them.

You can join the movement. Check out Repair Cafe and Fixit Clinics to get involved.

We LOVE swap shops! Many transfer stations & recycling centers have swap areas that allow residents to drop off items in working condition and take home treasures that others have left. All for FREE!

Freecycle: This hyper local giving and getting network is all about reuse and keeping good stuff out of the trash. Find a Group near You!

Buy Nothing is an Asking and Giving Platform that offers people a way to give an receive, share, and lend through a worldwide network of hyper-local groups. Find a Group near You!

Gifting platforms allow you to share directly with your neighbors, if you prefer a more personal touch.

In our next newsletter, we’re going to zoom out from personal action and dive into the concept of circularity. We’re excited to talk about the circular economy and share what’s happening in this space. We’ll also get into some of the big ideas percolating in the construction world (a huge generator of trash). Stay tuned!

Waste and Recycling Workers Week: A Shoutout to the MACs

June brings Waste and Recycling Workers Week, so we want to take a minute to celebrate an incredible team helping to reduce waste in Massachusetts: the MassDEP Municipal Assistance Coordinators! Affectionately known as the “MACs”, this dedicated group works directly with cities and towns to improve their solid waste and recycling programs.

Whether it’s providing technical assistance to start a food waste collection program, set up a swap shop at a drop-off site, or organize household hazardous waste collection days, the MACs are an integral part of helping the Commonwealth meet our waste reduction goals.

Over the past few months, the MACs have worked hand-in-hand with cities and towns as they apply for grants through MassDEP’s  Sustainable Materials Recovery Program (SMRP). Through SMRP grants, MassDEP awards close to $5 million annually to cities, towns, and solid waste districts to improve their recycling and other waste diversion programs. This year, MassDEP received a record number of grant applications, thanks in large part to the hard work of our MACs. So, kudos MAC team! Thank you for all that you do for our cities and towns. 👏🏼🎉

📚 What We're Reading

Happy Summer! ☀️

The Recycle Smart Team at MassDEP