Biodegradable Confusion

by Aryn Aiken

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According to the United Nations Environment Programme’s most recent report, “Biodegradable Plastics and Marine Litter,” biodegradable plastics are just as harmful to marine life as regular plastics. This danger is heightened by the misconception that biodegradable material can be disposed of flippantly because it will “vanish.” There is a strong confusion about what makes something worthy of the “biodegradable” label and how we should properly dispose of such substances. Biodegradable is defined as capable of “breaking down into carbon dioxide, water and biomass within a reasonable amount of time in the natural environment.” However, there has been no strict regulation on how long is a “reasonable amount of time” for labelling consumer goods as biodegradable. Everything degrades it’s just a matter of how long and under what conditions (somethings like a plastic bottle take forever to degrade). This October the Federal Trade Commission set a clear requirement for labelling a product biodegradable in a case against ECM Biofilms, which makes an additive for plastics to increase their biodegradability, and other companies. The FTC’s claim was that their product labelling was misleading and caused increased negligent disposable of their products. The new policy requires that “the entire item will completely decompose into elements found in nature within five (5) years after customary disposal.” However, ECM plans to appeal this decision because “by erecting an arbitrary and unscientific five-year cut off for use of the term ‘biodegradable,’ the FTC has imposed a constitutionally forbidden prior restraint on truthful speech.”

However, for marine life the danger posed by the improper disposal of “eco-friendly” plastics is very real. The microbes and high temperature that are needed for biodegradable plastics to fully break down into carbon dioxide, methane, and water, are rarely present in oceans. The lack of correct conditions for break down greatly increases the time it takes for the polymers to turn into safe compounds. UNEP estimates that 20 million metric tons of plastic ended up in oceans every year and this plastic doesn’t go away but becomes microplastic, dangerous to marine wildlife and ecosystems. 

Waste Disposal in Accra, Ghana

by Lydia Cap 

Hi! I’m Lydia, and I’m a research assistant here at Return Recycling. I spent this past January to May living/studying/working in Accra, Ghana. I’m interested in the politics behind healthcare distribution and how they are influenced by the environment; it was because of this interest that I found myself touring Old Fadama, a slum in Accra built on top of a lagoon and infested with waste.

Old Fadama, more popularly known as Sodom and Gomorrah after the biblical cities, sits on top of the Korle Lagoon and next to a large waste disposal site. Through one of my classes I had the amazing opportunity to take a tour through the neighborhood, led by local chiefs. This community is comprised of struggling families who have taken over privately-owned land to build homes and businesses with the hopes of fulfilling their livelihoods. Their health, however, is suffering due to close proximity to mountains of garbage. The lagoon on which they live is choked with debris ranging from e-waste to ordinary plastic bags. Children play in the garbage and cows walk through town to reach the trash, where they graze for any scraps of food intermingled with household and industrial waste. Most of this garbage will eventually be burned to create room for new additions because there is no efficient system in place to deal with trash; this is mainly a result of inadequate funding for public services. Recently this trash has contributed to disastrous floods during Ghana’s rainy season. In July, large amounts of rainfall combined with drains in the Korle Lagoon choked with waste led to deadly floods and fires.

I know what you’re thinking--how does this affect me? Well, if you want a direct link, some of the United State’s e-waste ends up in the Korle Lagoon; your old desktop computer could be in Ghana. More generally, I’m telling you about Old Fadama because it emphasizes the idea that out of sight should not mean out of mind. In the United States we have companies that take our garbage away weekly or bi-weekly; it rarely piles up to the point where it becomes a nuisance. But just because we don’t have to look a garbage piles doesn’t mean they don’t exist. Garbage has to go somewhere, and in the case of Old Fadama it is right next to people’s homes and has become a focal point of the community.

“War on Disposable Cups”

by Lydia Cap

Every year since 1997, Starbucks has unveiled a new winter-themed cup design at the beginning of the holiday season. This year’s design is a minimalist red ombre, which has lead to uproar on social media with many users calling the cup a "War on Christmas." Here at Return Recycling we are not worried about the design on the cups, but instead about what happens to these cups after they are used.

One of our main goals is to help people recycle more efficiently. Traditional trash/recycling containers are divided into two sections: one for paper and plastics and one for other waste. Empty disposable cups can easily be tossed into the paper/plastic container, but what happens if the cup still has coffee in it? Two options:

  1. Toss the entire cup in the trash - Bad! Goes straight to the landfill.

  2. Recycle the cup and its contents - Bad! Just one semi-full cup of coffee can stain an entire load of recyclable paper, which most recycling carters will not accept. Straight to the landfill again.

Our specially designed bins (check them out here) have separate containers for recycling, compost, landfill, and liquids. Our design creates a new option for coffee cup disposal:

  • Empty leftover coffee into the liquid container, and recycle the coffee cup and lid - Good!

While our bins help prevent disposable cups from reaching landfills, there is still a better solution that prevents these cups from being used in the first place: reusable mugs! Americans use an estimated 25 billion disposable coffee cups per year. And only a small amount of those cups are actually recycled, leading to massive amounts of paper and styrofoam being sent to landfills each year. Regardless of where you purchase your coffee, reusable coffee mugs are a smart investment because they allow both consumers and corporations to save money (Starbucks even offers a discount for customers who bring in their own mugs) all while reducing the amount of waste put into landfills. So next time you visit your favorite coffee shop, remember to bring along your reusable mug and join the “War on Disposable Cups!”


Revisiting Obama’s Rejection of KXL

by Davis Saltonstall

Two weeks ago, President Barrack Obama permanently canceled the development of the Keystone XL pipeline. Although not directly waste-related per-say, his decision will remain a landmark for environmentalists in years to come. And we’re excited about it. Here’s why…

Tar sands oil is one of the dirtiest oils produced in the global economy… by a long shot. In Alberta, Canada tar sands are stripmined in open pits that dramatically change the landscape. Previously well-functioning Boreal forest ecosystem ends up looking like the picture to the left. Once mined, these tar sands must be shipped to a refinery in the southern US; and then, after they’ve been refined into oil, tar sands are consumed (burned) and emit CO2.

Throughout its lifecycle, tar sands oil produces an alarming amount of waste. The mined tailings, the waste-water created in the process of refinement, the CO2 emitted in the process of extraction, the CO2 emitted through consumption… it’s a process that bleeds from start to finish with byproduct that inevitably ends up externalized on society at large. We, the global collective, end up paying for the continued extraction and consumption of tar sands oil in ecosystem destruction, loss of biodiversity, contaminated waterways, and an atmosphere that is wildly out of balance with the pre-industrial carbon cycle.

Considering the renewable energy options that are available today, tar sands extraction seems simply barbaric. It uses so many more resources than standard oil production that it’s only made economically viable by a high price for oil. The price of solar is dropping exponentially and electric cars are becoming increasingly more popular. Although renewable energies are not without their own waste, they externalize less of this waste upon people. If that’s the future we want, one with less waste, why would we extend our dependence on a fuel that is costly and wastes an abundant amount of resources? From a “zero-waste” perspective, the further (and the sooner) that we can move away from destructive methods of energy extraction like tar sands, the better.

Although a pipeline isn’t equivalent to a mine, we’re celebrating Obama’s decision to reject the Keystone XL pipeline because it acknowledged the necessity of reducing American dependence on the wasteful methods of fossil fuel extraction. It was an homage to the thousands of organizers that campaigned for eight years against the pipeline; a line of hope to the frontline communities that stood in front of bulldozers; and a message to the industry that it must consider the will of the people in its future plans. Our lives are resources that should not be wasted, or disposed.

America Recycles Day vs. American Zero Waste Day

by Aryn Aiken

Since 2010, in the United States every November 15th has been America Recycles Day, an initiative started by the nonprofit, Keep America Beautiful. Organizations across the country encouraged their communities to take the recycling pledge featured on America Recycles Day’s website:

The initiative succeeded in garnering 65,298 signatures and 605 posts on instagram were tagged #iwillrecycle. Some companies also took initiatives to reduce their waste through recycling. Dell sent Adrian Greiner, the Entourage star, out in New York City in an Uber to collect used electronics for their Dell Reconnect program.

On the surface, America Recycles Day seems like a fine way to raise awareness on the issue of waste management and recyclable goods, but when we look deeper problems arise. The reasoning behind the problematic nature of America Recycles Day is hidden in plain sight. Keep America Beautiful was started by a coalition of corporations including, the International Bottled Water Association, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Coors. They started KAB in 1953 when litter, that of their own disposable containers, was becoming an increasing issue in the US. Their message to the public was and still is a simple command: you should keep america beautiful, not us. Their focus is on making the consumer responsible for the trash the manufacturer created when switching to disposable containers instead of the previous refillable system. These same corporations fought against bottle bills, formally know as beverage container deposit legislation, which allow states to pay people for recycling bottles and now only exist in 10 states. Bottle bills are proven to increase recycling rates from 20.4% to 60%, as reported by the Container Recycling Institute. The question becomes do they really want to keep america beautiful or do they want to keep focus away from manufacturer and corporate accountability for waste? It seems they want consumers and waste infrastructure to be responsible for their trash and their systems of production and distribution to remain free from question.

A popular sustainability news source, Treehugger, published several articles leading up to November 15th expressing their distaste for America Recycles Day based on these same issues and advocating for the transformation of America Recycles Day into Zero Waste Day, one day a year during which you buy nothing that comes in a disposable container. This still puts the pressure on the consumer instead of the manufacturer, but it takes away one day of sales for all companies who use disposable packaging. Zero Waste Day, although still focused on an individual instead of corporate change, poses more of a threat to businesses like those who started Keep America Beautiful. At Return Recycling, we’re working on ways to promote sustainable businesses who make their own zero-waste efforts instead of relying on the consumer to recycle their waste or find ways to reuse it. But what makes a company “sustainable” to begin with? More to come on that soon.

Visit Project Farmhouse

by Aryn Aiken

Photo: Moonrose Cheng

Photo: Moonrose Cheng

This week only, Grow NYC, the non-profit devoted to being the “sustainability resource for New Yorkers,” has a installation in Union Square promoting their new education and outreach program, Project Farmhouse. The “farmhouse” is set to open in around April of 2016. They hope to transform a retail space on 13th street into a one stop shop for all of Grow NYC’s sustainability education and give the organization it’s first real home right off Union Square. The space plans to house programming on how to most effectively recycle in public schools, how to build a garden bed, how to eat sustainably, and more. On the topic of community engagement, it’s important to emphasize that, at Return Recycling, we aren’t focused solely on waste management. We also want to develop methods of engagement with the waste characterization research we conduct. We want you to know what’s in your trash and how you can reduce your waste and effectively divert recyclable or compostable materials from landfills. Engaging with your trash sounds gross, but if we don’t know what we throw away, we won't know how to manage our waste effectively.

Photo: Moonrose Cheng

An arch in the shape of Project Farmhouse’s logo made of repurposed tubes is in Union Square as part of the Greenmarket. Go visit and while you’re there learn more about Project Farmhouse and how Grow NYC plans to create a community around sustainable living.

One Fish, Two Fish, Eat Fish, Lose Fish?

by Tessa Rosenberry 

A purse seiner catching tons of mackerel in Chile.

A purse seiner catching tons of mackerel in Chile.

Johns Hopkins put out a research report not too long ago showing that nearly half (47%) of the U.S. seafood supply goes to waste. Some of that is from bycatch, distribution and retail operations, but the big chunk (almost 60%) is at the hands of consumers: a whopping 1.3 billion pounds of seafood is wasted by American seafood eaters every year - enough to fulfill recommended seafood consumption requirements for 10,000 American men.

Wasting all that fish (and crustaceans, cephalopods, etc.) is an issue, to say the least. Putting seafood to waste has a whole spread of negative impacts, like overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, coral reef bleaching, and global climate change. Considering the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion is telling us to eat even more seafood, we have to be pretty darn careful with how much we’re buying and eating - or rather, not eating.

The study suggests various methods of reducing seafood waste throughout the production timeline - everything from limiting bycatch to labelling fish packaging with instructions for freezing. But the only suggestion they made for the consumption sector is to “Promote the idea of consuming parts of fish not commonly eaten in the U.S., such as soups from made from fish heads.”

A little meek, don’t you think? I mean yeah, making change at the consumer level is hard! There are no easy answers - if there were, the whole national seafood waste thing wouldn’t be a mostly-consumer issue.

That said, I like to think there are a few other options for change to be made at the consumer level. The first that comes to mind is to cut seafood out altogether and go for the total veg-head lifestyle (and still be just as healthy!). Not purchasing fish would certainly eliminate the risk of it being wasted. But in this context, that might be a little bit extreme for some people.

In lieu of vegetarianism, there are other options for education-driven change, like educating consumers on how to purchase seafood in appropriate (non-wasteful) portions, how to buy from responsibly-sourced (local, sustainable, small-scale, ethical) vendors, and how to maximize the consumptiveness (longevity, quality) of their seafood. This all comes from an increase in information about the dangers of the seafood industry and seafood waste - we need to keep doing these sorts of studies and putting them out in the mainstream in order to build a national conversation around the issue.

On an end note, as always, we at Return Recycling are all about the potential for individual change to spur systematic change. Even though behavior change is super important in building up a societal mindset around non-wastefulness, it has to be combined with top-down (governmental and corporate) action to enact large-scale, impactful, prompt, and lasting change. It’s always worth it to point out that individual Americans have a lot of sway not only as consumers, but as citizens - so in other words, go out and vote about fish! (The EU did it!)


S[trash]ten Island’s New Park

by Tessa Rosenberry



About two weeks ago, I trekked out to Staten Island for a field trip with my Trash Matters* class to stand in a park that was built on top of what was, at its “peak,” the largest landfill in the world: Fresh Kills.

I know probably more than I’ll ever need to (though I suppose you never know) about the history and engineering of Fresh Kills, but what strikes me most is what you could call the philosophical implications of just plopping a park on top of what was once a gigantic, ugly (in a lot of ways) scar on NYC.

So let’s start with that: the covering up of something so ugly, and yet so indicative of the damages wrought by our consumerist society (too heavy?). Think about it, here’s this enormous illustration of how wasteful our culture is - which brings to light all these other, connected issues too, like environmental justice, institutional racism, corporate responsibility - and we’re just going to go make it into a park.

I don’t mean to diminish all of the benefits of creating Fresh Kills Park: increased access to green space, community health and wellbeing, intergovernmental collaboration - and transforming something harmful and representative of human ills into something beautiful and shared. But all of these benefits (and that last one in particular) can end up being problematic.

We have to be really careful to not render our waste invisible. It’s such a huge issue: we’re already so detached from our waste (philosophically, culturally, physically) that even talking about garbage is still a turn-off. So by covering it up, we’re not only refusing to talk about the truths that defined the space for so long, but we’re adding to the current societal movement in the opposite direction of the environmentally and socially responsible treatment of waste that we need!

Fresh Kills has the awesome opportunity to become a memorial (for lack of a better word) to its waste history. It’s a chance to put to use something that has marred our conception of our society as something productive, progressive, and responsible; to actually be those things! Fresh Kills could - and should - be made into an educational experience, through art, science, and community building. We have the chance to engage with our entire city (and beyond) around creating a world that is not only aware of their waste and its implications, but is proactive in using that awareness to improve the global garbage system. The history of our waste can’t be wasted.

Fresh Kills Park is scheduled to open in phases up until its complete opening in 2036.

*Shameless plug for Trash Matters, an excellent class taught by Rosalind Fredericks at NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Study. If you’re at NYU: take it. Do it.


College Pizza Box Composting

by Aryn Aiken

     Some may say delivery pizza is a college student’s best friend, but it can be recycling’s worst enemy. Because paper recycling is a water-based process, cardboard pizza boxes are many times made unrecyclable by grease from everyone’s favorite late-night comfort food. Dirty pizza boxes become a contaminant in the paper recycling system. College students at North Carolina State University saw this problem on their campus and started the Pizza Box Composting Project. They gathered volunteers, participants, and bins to compost around 16,000 greasy pizza boxes in the past year. Waste disposal problems on college campuses are being addressed more and more by students across the country. What could your campus do to decrease its contribution to landfills? Could you start a pizza composting project at your school? Read more about NC State’s Pizza Composting Project here.

So... What does NYU throw away? Why we’re tackling the coffee cup

by Davis Saltonstall

Over the course of Spring 2015, Return Recycling sorted through about 150 pounds of trash from NYU’s Silver Center for Arts and Sciences. Yes. You heard that right. Every Monday, between the hours of 9am and noon, we opened up NYU’s garbage bags to see what people were throwing away and created an itemized list of EVERYTHING that students were disposing of in public spaces. We’ve taken a mini snapshot of results from that study to share with you today.

It may not be a surprise that 78% of all the items thrown away in NYU’s lounge spaces were food-related; but the breakdown of that “food-related waste” might turn some heads. Coffee cups (and all their attachments: sleeves, straws, lids, etc.)[1] made up a whopping 21.1% of total trash, napkins alone comprised 15.1%, plastic bags and wrappers totaled 10.7%, food waste itself counted 8.9%, bottles and cans were only 5.3%, to-go containers came in at 4.9%, and paper bags counted as 2.5%. There are many other items I’m leaving out, disposable plates, plastic cutlery, and other miscellaneous items, but they’re noticeably smaller percentages of the total waste disposed (think .5% and smaller).

What’s that tell us necessarily? Well… you’re not the only student with a coffee addiction or the desperate need for a mid-day snack. The majority of student waste in the Silver Center can be tied back to the disposables received from local food vendors around Washington Square Park. More fun still… in the coming weeks we’ll release information on what companies students using the spaces in Silver are purchasing most of their coffee, lunch and snacks from based on the trash that was well-labeled. Hint: it’s not the dining hall.

With just this basic information on trash by category though, it’s possible for us to imagine ways of dramatically reducing the waste that students dispose of on a daily basis. If we want to attack the heart of waste issues at NYU, this study tells us we should probably start by addressing disposables associated with food industry around the square… and figuring out a way to shrink the number of coffee cups students toss every day.

[1] In our study we counted the different components of “coffee cups” as separate items. Why? Not every coffee cup had a sleeve, lid or straw—and in many cases these different components were made out of different materials. When we look at each of these components alone; coffee cups (plastic and paper) comprise about 8% of the total trash, lids make 6%, straws make 3.9%, and sleeves make 2.8%. So in reality the 21% might seem a bit of an inflated statistic, but it shows just how many separately manufactured items are simultaneously being disposed of.  


Zero Waste Panel: a belated takeaway

by Aryn Aiken

    Three weeks ago, NYU had a zero waste challenge sponsored by the Office of Sustainability, ECO Reps, Earth Matters, and us, Return Recycling. Students pledged to send no waste to landfill for a week and to kick it off hosted three influential, but vastly different, figures in the current zero waste movement: Samantha MacBride, Lauren Singer, and Colin Beavan. Each speaker’s idea of zero waste is different as a prior employee of the New York City Department of Education and a professor at Baruch College, a lifestyle blogger and small business owner, and as a writer and activist responsible for No Impact Man, respectively. Samantha MacBride claimed that zero waste is an “aspiration that shapes policy.” Lauren Singer’s lens is that of the individual making a conscious lifestyle choice by sending nothing to the landfill and not purchasing new products to decrease the demand for “brand new” and “built to break” items. Colin Beavan views a waste of resources as a waste of human happiness on superfluous things that we don’t really need. Throughout the panel problems within everything from waste infrastructure to capitalism were discussed. There seemed to be a divide between panelists, MacBride was more focused on improving the infrastructure of waste management to better accommodate our current society while Singer and Beavan felt more strongly about vast social change towards a world where no one eats wrapped granola bars and no one drives cars. Building things to last and holding companies accountable for their trash were two raised issues that relate to Return Recycling specifically. We’re working on promoting increased use of reusable products instead of their disposable counterparts that we find in our bins. We’ve also collected data on what companies are responsible for the trash sent to landfill from NYU and hope to promote companies who adopt or have already adopted zero waste efforts.

    Check back tomorrow for an update on our research findings from Davis.

Eat the peel and the core

by Aryn Aiken

    It’s almost universally known that the skin of a fruit is its most nutritious asset. However, we consistently continue to peel and throw it away. I’ve always avoided eating entire baked potatoes unless forced because I thought eating the skin of a potato was gross. Kiwi skin might be weird and fuzzy but, like potato skin, it is still meant for consumption. The same goes for cores of apples and pears. I remember my aunt telling me that only horses eat the whole apple, but the core is just as edible and nutritious as the rest of the apple. The idea that peel and “cores” of fruits and vegetables aren’t really edible, leads to the waste of viable nutrients and contributes to 90 billion pounds of consumer-level food waste in the United States, as reported by the USDA in 2014. The food we waste “represents 387 billion calories…of food not available for human consumption per day.” So try eating all of your apple, all the “white stuff” on your orange slices, all the skin on you kiwi, all the bruised parts of your banana. Eat all your fruits and veggies whole, but if you must dispose of food waste, compost it at the Return Recycling bins in the Silver Center. (product placement made possible by the DURF)

     Check out this list of yummy fruit and veggie peels and this video, “How to Eat an Apple like a Boss.”

DIY Halloween Decorations: Recycled Ghosts

By Moonrose Cheng

Photo: Moonrose Cheng

Photo: Moonrose Cheng

Halloween is coming up soon and you know what that means…decorating time!

Today I’ll be showing you a super easy way to make mini ghosts by reusing your plastic bags.

Did you know? According to National Retail Foundation, U.S. spending on decorations for Halloween in 2015 will amount to $1.9 billion.

The mass production of decorations can generate lots of waste. Many of these items end up in the landfill, polluting everything around it. However, you can reuse and make your own Halloween decorations. Save money and the earth!

What you’ll need:

  • Scissors
  • Tape
  • White plastic bags
  • Colored permanent markers


1. Cut off the handles of the plastic bag.

2. Cut the bag into either rectangles or circles. Whatever shape you choose, it will determine the bottom edges of the ghost.

3. Fold the piece in half and twist the middle, so the top section looks like a balloon and the bottom forms a skirt. See picture for reference.

4. Tape the twisted part so it doesn’t come undone.

5. Use your fingers to puff out the balloon part to make your ghost have a head.

6. Get your permanent markers and draw a face!

7, Tape it to the wall, or hang them in a row.


You’re done!

Share your ghosts with us by tagging us in your Instagram photos @returnrecycling

Happy Halloween! Be safe!





Photo: glia)-HighRes.jpg

Photo: glia)-HighRes.jpg

Tonight at 7:00, Brooklyn Academy of Music is hosting multiple climate experts to discuss the recent past, present, and future of the climate movement. Specifically, the event will relate to the Road to Paris - the time and efforts leading up to the UN Conference on Climate Change in Paris this November and December. 

Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein, Reverend Lennox Yearwood, and others will speak tonight - don't miss out!! Tickets are available on BAM's website on a sliding basis. Hope to see you all there! 

For all of you intellectuals out there, here's some light reading.

 "Rendering waste invisible to its producers is now made all the easier by flows that take used commodities from consumers and break them into various constituent parts elsewhere around the globe. Discarded clothing, consumer durables, electronic goods, paper, and plastics have global circulations to differentiated destinations [for instance, e-waste in West Africa, and Southern China or textiles in India, where they are 'recycled' into yet further commodities."