Recycling a limited solution in disposable society

PHOTO: Alan Levine, Flickr CC
Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range blogger, author, radio producer and columnist for the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

The attendant at the dump extended a pair of Inspector Gadget tongs into the recycling bins to retrieve contraband. His sworn enemy is styrofoam.

“If I could un-invent anything on earth it would be styrofoam,” he told me this month.

He also told me that the rules would be changing. Itasca County now must pay more to recycle and won’t be able to take as many things as before.

Living in rural Northern Minnesota means hauling your own garbage and recycling to the dump. It also means forming a relationship with your refuse. Just like human relationships this bond changes with time and circumstance. Behind the green curtain you see the true challenges that stem from our vast amount of waste.

When we had three children aged 2 and younger I would haul two garbage bags to the canister station each week. One bag contained our family’s trash. The other much heavier bag held a week’s worth of dirty diapers. This smelly tradition carried on for years until one day the diapers were replaced by goldfish cracker boxes.

The nice thing about cracker boxes is that they were recyclable. I saved 75 cents a week. The only down side was a lot of clogged toilets, which led to plastic jars of fiber gummies (also recyclable).

Every slight change in lifestyle affected my weekly sort. Yogurt cups during diets. Mac and Cheese boxes when we’re too busy to cook. Christmases and birthdays produced heaps of hard plastic packaging. Once valuable objects like lawnmowers, furniture and appliances would be left at the dump like old lovers on train platforms.

When we lived in town garbage trucks came like springtime nymphs. All one needed was enough strength to hoist garbage and recyclables into the bins. It was easy to imagine that household waste went to some sort of odiferous Valhalla to live forever.

This is the relationship most Americans have with their trash and recycling. But throwing something into a bin is only the beginning.

For years, Itasca County contracted with the nonprofit MDI Hired Hands program to sort its recycling into piles of resalable materials. Hired Hands employed people with disabilities. It was a win-win. But late last year, Hired Hands pulled out of the arrangement. It could no longer break even selling the county’s recycling on the secondary market.

Now the county pays the private company Waste Management to take its recyclable materials. Waste Management is one of a handful of large companies making big profits off taking over recycling programs across America. The alternatives? Burn or bury the waste. In fact, that’s what ends up happening to a significant portion of the products we believe to be recyclable.

This has been happening all over the country for more than a year. A March 19, 2019 Michael Corkery story in the New York Times details the problem. China used to purchase a great deal of American recycled goods for use in new materials. However, a slowdown in China’s economy, new technology, and other sources of materials all combined to dry up that market. 

A Sept. 5, 2019 episode of the NPR podcast “Throughline” explores “The Litter Myth.” It details the history of how companies that made disposable packaging taught Americans to throw things out. The generation of the Great Depression couldn’t bear the waste of post-WWII consumerism. So elaborate marketing campaigns taught us that it was OK.

But now we’re going to have to unlearn that lesson. There’s a plastic island in the Pacific Ocean. Tiny particles of plastic are showing up in the bellies of fish and birds. And even things we thought we could recycle are finding their way into landfills.

As Americans, we will soon come face to face with a hard truth. The only effective way to handle all this waste will be to reduce and reuse. We will have to reprogram ourselves to keep, rather than toss. Reusable cups. Glass milk jugs. More biodegradable cardboard and paper. Recycling seems destined to become a tool of last resort, used only for valuable commodities.

If you don’t think so, I’d encourage you to follow your recycling to where it ends up. You will see that one man’s recycling is another man’s plain old garbage. What do we do with it all?

Ay, there’s the rubbish.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and is the creator of the Great Northern Radio Show which aired for eight years on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, March 29, 2020 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.




  1. The plastics industry (which is essentially a branch of the oil/gas industry) is planning major expansions, at the same time as public awareness of the harm plastics do in the environment, is growing. the rock is approaching the hard place.

    IMO it’s hard to exaggerate how undesirable it is to let Waste Management into a community. This nasty corporation can afford to low ball contracts and force local business out. Then, when prices zoom, what will we do? Ugh.

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