By Bliss Bowen
Pasadena Weekly Contributing Writer
Just in time for Earth Day, sustainability consultant Jennie Romer’s book “Can I Recycle This? A Guide to Better Recycling and How to Reduce Single-Use Plastics” handily mixes practical information with shots of hope.
Romer, a legal associate for the Surfrider Foundation’s Plastic Pollution Initiative and an industrious advocate for the “culture of reuse,” concisely explains the U.S. recycling system before tracking more than 60 objects from curbside to recycling facility or landfill. It’s a useful approach that demonstrates how the process works, the difference between recycling and downcycling, the dangers of wishcycling, what is and isn’t recyclable — and, more importantly, why and how that intersects with U.S. laws and the global economy and environment.
The largest chunk of the book is dedicated to answering its title — “Can I Recycle This?” — with a color-coded section that organizes commonly used household products into theoretic recycling tubs: “Bags and Boxes,” “Beverage Containers and Drinkware,” “Single-Use Foodware and Packaged Food Containers,” “Home Goods and Personal Items,” “Tools.” If ever there was a cogent argument for drastically reducing single-use plastic by redesigning everyday products, this is it.
Readers may perceive contact lenses, toothpaste tubes, delivery envelopes, party cups and especially plastic bottles differently after considering Romer’s prescriptions for how to handle such items.
Can you recycle shampoo bottles? Yes, if they are made from HDPE No. 2 plastic. What about amber-colored prescription bottles? No. Baby food pouches? No (because they are usually made from multilayer material, Romer writes, they “have no chance of being effectively recycled”).
How about aluminum foil? Yes, but with caveats (be sure to scrunch it up into a ball first so the recycling machinery can sort it). Paper egg cartons? By all means. Can you recycle mesh fruit bags? Wine corks? Lithium-ion batteries? No, no, and an emphatically all-caps no. (According to Romer, lithium-ion batteries present such a grave fire risk that recycling facilities are having difficulty obtaining insurance.)
The issue of textile recycling has assumed greater urgency with the rise of fast fashion, and it would be interesting to see deeper analysis here of industry efforts to recycle fabric fibers.
While Romer gives it a nod, she writes that clothing and shoes are never recyclable; she emphasizes the community benefits of donating still usable clothes and shoes to homeless shelters, charities, or consignment or vintage shops, and blankets and towels to animal shelters.
Other comments illuminate in different ways how economic inequities affect people’s recycling choices. Reusable glass yogurt cups, for instance, may be an option for wealthy communities that support deposit systems for such things, but they are rare.
Romer praises several programs and establishments across the country for translating responsible recycling choices into healthy business and civic practices, including Oregon’s BottleDrop Refillables bottle-deposit pilot program, Brooklyn’s BK ROT composting and youth employment project, and the El Cerrito Recycling & Environmental Resource Center north of Oakland.
Christie Young’s colorful illustrations are the book’s secret weapon. Much as she did with her own “Girl Talk: Unsolicited Advice for Modern Ladies,” Young illuminates Romer’s points with wit and can-do cheer, and a vibrant color palette that helps elevate a weighty topic into something more engaging. She’s a natural fit with Romer’s conversational prose.
Romer is no stranger to the threat and prevalence of plastic in our marine environment and food systems. She earned degrees in zoology and environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara before becoming a lawyer, and in 2010, she established the website PlasticBagLaws.org as an informational resource for cities and states wondering how to limit use of plastic.
Several of her book’s passages about microplastic in oceans brought to mind environmental scientist Marcus Eriksen’s 2017 book “Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution.” So, it’s not surprising when, toward the end of the book, she travels for eight days in the Atlantic with a crew from 5 Gyres Institute, the ocean conservation research nonprofit co-founded by Eriksen and his wife, Anna Cummins; the trip enables her to bear personal witness to the presence of plastic in the ocean.
“Eleven million metric tons of plastic waste enter the ocean every year. Without significant action, plastic will outweigh fish in the ocean by 2050,”
Romer observes, while drawing connections between consumer choices and environmental impact across the globe. Some of the most edifying chapters cover the Basel Convention and the longstanding practice of shipping U.S. trash overseas for recycling, as they highlight the humanitarian and environmental issues raised by paying other countries to deal with out-of-sight-out-of-mind problems we have created. In a book that seeks to dissolve confusion with clarity, these are the most helpful in addressing the global environmental and economic consequences of community choices.
Several trash-hauling companies announced in 2020 that they would stop exporting plastic waste outside of North America — a vital step that needs to be more formally supported by governmental policy and law. Romer drives home that point with specific actions readers can take beyond buying cocktail peanuts in bulk and composting food scraps.
“Only 9% of the plastic ever produced has been recycled,” she reminds readers, and global plastic production, which reached 311 million metric tons in 2014, is projected to double within 20 years. Usage of plastic bags and takeout food packaging has spiked dramatically during the pandemic, making this topic ever more timely.
Per the Recycling Partnership, the average single-family U.S. household generates 768 pounds of recyclable material per year; how much of that could be avoided by changing habits? As Romer’s book takes pains to spell out, recycling is one piece of a complex chain, and the most effective answer to air and marine pollution lies in eliminating or at least drastically reducing its source.
Learn more about Jennie Romer at Jennieromer.com or follow her at twitter.com/