When Recycling Fails: Home-Scale Solutions for turning Paper and Plastic Waste into Resources

There is no such thing as away!

For decades here in the USA, recycling was touted as one of the more easy environmental things you could do. I, like many others, assumed that local recycling facilities processed materials, they were sent to factories, and then later, re-integrated into various products.  Boy was I wrong!  Turns out that recycling is an industrialized business like any other, and part of the reason is that it was so promoted is that there was profit in waste.  In fact, from 1992 – late 2018, most recycling produced in the US shipped to China, who paid top dollar for recycled resources that were used to build their own economy. China had very lax environmental laws, and the more “dirty” recycling the US produced was sent to China for cheap sorting and processing.  While some of those materials were recycled, many of the recycled materials ended up unusable and were discarded, moving down rivers and contributing eventually to one of the many garbage patches in the Pacific Ocean (Sierra Club has an overview of this situation here). This dark secret of recycling wasn’t well known–you simply put your materials in a bin, and felt good about not sending them to the landfill, and off they went–out of sight, out of mind. In late 2018, China tightened its own environmental laws, and has become extremely strict on what recycling it would take. Contaminated recycling (which is often the result of “single stream” recycle systems) is no longer accepted.  And most recycling in the US is quite contaminated. Other countries, such as Malaysia and Vietnam, started buying up recycling for a while, but they have since decided they can also no longer take recyclables due to the volume and environmental impact. 

Recycled handmade paper in progress
Recycled handmade paper in progress

Long story short, this developing situation has resulted in a recycling crisis in the USA and in other developed nations. While some see this as an opportunity, many municipalities are resorting to simply filling landfills with recycling or worse–incinerating it.  Locally, many communities in my region are experiencing these shifts: we’ve seen changes to what can be accepted in recycling or the eradication of programs entirely. For example, most of Pittsburgh is no longer accepting glass and is cracking down on plastics it accepts; here on my campus, no shredded paper is allowed to be recycled). We are also seeing higher costs for recycling, or simply programs ending entirely.  But more broadly, what seems to be taking place is the lack of a good recycling infrastructure to actually support recycling processing here in the US.

But the truth is this: even when it was being shipped to China, recycling isn’t the solution to plastic problems.  Some new research illustrated that microplastics are so pervasive that they are literally in our rain, drinking water, and everywhere else–plastics are lethal to many inhabits on this planet.

Given these challenges, I’d like to take some time today to reflect on this problem and talk about some possible ways forward centered on two possibilities: reducing one-use plastic and paper consumption and turning waste into resources. I also want to note that not all “waste” is the same with regard to this recycling crisis. The real problem materials at present are paper and plastic recycling. Aluminum cans and other recyclables don’t seem to have changed much, and they still seem to be being recycled at high rates, at least according to this article. Given this situation, I’m going to focus my discussion primarily on paper and plastic for the remainder of this post and discuss some “at home” solutions that I’ve been exploring in response.

Waste and the Sacred

The thing I ask myself is: from where do these things arise?  All of these “waste” products ultimately come from one place: the living earth.  It is the living earth that provides the raw materials that humans use.  It is the lifeblood of the earth, the oil, that creates most plastics.  It is the creation of these materials that is problematic–synthetic materials that are so altered from their natural state that they cannot break down.  It is also the gross misuse, abuse, and disposal of these materials that have polluted our world, such that some of these issues, like microplastics, may *never* be solved–at least not in the next 500 or more years.

I believe that this calls for a shift–not only to some of the practices that I am going to share next, but in our own relationship with these waste products.  We need to start seeing *all* resources as not only “non-disposable” but sacred.  These are things that are ultimately derived from the earth, and their proliferation on the earth is seriously harming all life.

Reducing Consumption of Paper and Plastic

The most obvious solution to the plastic and paper recycling challenge is to work to eliminate paper and plastic waste. This is a very noble endeavor, and there are many ways that you can greatly reduce the amount of paper and plastic you consume–but it seems nearly impossible to eliminate entirely.  There are a lot of good ideas floating around out there at present, so I’ll share a few here:

  • Avoid any single-use plastics. These include things like straws, plastic silverware, styrofoam take-out containers, plastic bags, plastic plates, plastic cups, etc.  You can almost always pre-plan or simply decline.
  • Even single-use paper cups can largely be avoided by bringing your own reusable cup.
  • Eliminate plastic packaging whenever possible; opt for things that aren’t packaged (such as bulk food purchases) or packaged in paper over plastic. Being selective here can make a huge impact.
  • Eliminate plastic toothbrushes and toothpaste containers by purchasing alternatives (like bamboo) and toothpaste tablets from small online startup companies
  • Eliminate plastic bags or paper bags by bringing your own or opting not for a bag (or shopping at stores that don’t provide them, in the USA primarily this is Aldi)
  • Ask to be removed from all mailing lists and reduce junk mail
  • Be contentious about paper use; print on both sides of the paper and use scrap paper
  • Shop locally at farmer’s markets and so forth to eliminate plastic packaging (food packaging is a source of much waste)
  • If you enjoy soda or fizzy water, invest in a Soda Stream or something similar to eliminate drinking plastic
  • Obviously, stop drinking bottled water and fill your water bottle up from the tap
  • Eliminate one-use paper products as much as possible – use rags and cloths and wash them rather than paper towels, etc.
  • When purchasing online, ask before buying about the plastic packaging.
  • Write to companies about their packaging and encourage change.
  • When purchasing clothing, purchase clothing that is of natural materials rather than synthetics (a big contributor to microplastics)
  • Try to purchase items that are made of materials close to the earth: natural fibers, woods, etc, rather than those synthetically derived and that will take much longer to break down
Many non-biodegradable plastics I discovered in my vermicompost bin!
Many non-biodegradable plastics I discovered in my vermicompost bin! I didn’t even know they were in there!  The worms couldn’t break them down and ignored them. What to do?

There are many opportunities out there to reduce plastic and paper consumption. By reducing demand and seeking alternatives we can help stop these plastic and paper waste streams before they start. And to me, that’s a really important piece of this larger systemic issue: eliminating the problem as close to the source as possible.

At the same time, even with extremely conscientious purchasing and attention, it is almost impossible to get paper and plastic consumption down to zero. Unintended plastic, in particular, always seems to make it into your life. It might not even be stuff you buy, but stuff other people bring in: for example, a family dinner, a gift someone gives you, unexpected layers of plastic packaging, the garbage you pick up in the woods or along the beach, stuff that literally blows into your yard during a storm, and so on.  These plastics are present, and I believe, that once they are in our lives, we are responsible for their cycle and making sure they don’t become pollution. So, let’s now move on to some home-scale solutions for turning both paper and plastic waste into resources!

Paper Waste into Resources: Handmade Paper, Sheet mulch, and Mushroom Cultivation Opportunities

For years I’ve been trying to eliminate as much paper use as I can. I love trees, and paper comes from trees.  Thus, I don’t like to see wasted paper because each bit of wasted paper is literally from something I hold so sacred.  So let’s explore a few uses for paper that would otherwise go to waste.

One of the ways I’ve worked with waste papers for over two decades is to create handmade recycled papers. I save up clean papers (usually colored or simple computer paper, often from my classes and university work) and when I have enough, I spend a day making delightful papers. These papers can be turned into handmade journals, gifts, cards, and many such resources. While this can handle some of the paper in my life, it certainly can’t handle it all, and not all papers are good for papermaking. Cardboards and newspapers, for example, do not make good handmade papers due to higher acid content and poor fiber content.

Sheet mulch in progress

Of particular concern to me is the cardboard and newspaper that seems to pile up.  Despite repeatedly removing myself from every mailing ad campaign and magazine, each week I still seem to get more junk mail than the week before. This, combined with various boxes and other packaging seems to add up quickly. Thus, one of the other things I’ve been using these materials for many years on my homestead is for sheet mulching; newspaper and cardboard are both excellent resources for making paths, weed suppression for garden beds, and so on.  For this to be successful, you need a lot of cardboard and newspaper!  A 20-foot path may require at least 20-30 cardboard boxes or a huge stack of newspaper.  Using these in this way transforms waste into resources!

Another option that is useful is to use vermicompost to handle some of your paper waste.  Worms will break down not only vegetable scraps and coffee grounds, but they also will make short work of damp paper and shredded cardboard. Their process takes time, but it certainly can be a good supplement to other methods.

A final way I’ve been exploring with home paper recycling is through mushroom cultivation; oysters can be grown on cardboard and paper (see a good discussion of this at Permies.com)! So far, I’ve been successful in growing mushrooms in fresh coffee grounds layered with pizza boxes. The key, I’ve found, is not to compact anything too tightly (I will post about this process once I have it perfected enough to share something that is consistent and works).

A combination of these options at the homestead means that we very rarely end up needing to take any paper or cardboard to the recycle center–instead, these materials are treated as the resources that they are: wanted, honored, and used.

Plastic Waste as a Resource

Paper is perhaps the more easy thing to recycle; you can do a lot with it and even if you can’t, it breaks down readily in the environment in a year or two. In my mind, plastic, which can literally last thousands of years in the ecosystem, is the more serious of my concerns. And in truth, plastic is literally destroying our world, getting into the bodies of animals and fish, trashing ecosystems, and it will persist for centuries and millennia. In early 2019, after seeing the crisis that was looming with recyclables, I began to explore options in earnest to reduce plastic consumption. Even with my many reductions, however, plastic was just flowing into my life all the time! A lot of this wasn’t even recyclable to begin with, so even with avid recycling, I was still ending up throwing a lot of plastic away. Each time I did, I thought about the growing Great Pacific Garbage Patch and hung my head in shame.

Plastic film, cellophane, styrofoam, packing peanuts, plastic wrap, plastic bags–are the kinds of things that are almost never recycled, and do not often have even a number to recycle.  These are also the kinds of waste plastics that are filling our world. This video does a great job in explaining how “single-use” plastic is really the worst, and that’s the stuff we see most often showing up in marine ecosystems. So what’s a druid to do?

Because I have an interest in building things and making things, I focused my energy and research on that route, and came up with two viable solutions for turning waste plastic into a resource on a personal / home scale. Before I present my two options, I will also note that there seem to be some options at a community level for more industrial-scale models for plastic recycling, like this cool machine that turns plastic recycling into bricks that can be used in homes. But these kinds of things aren’t home scale, and therefore, out of reach of a single person.

The first thing I looked into is a great open source community called “Precious Plastics.” This community offers open-source plans, resources, and video guides to produce a number of different machines that actively convert different types of plastics into cool stuff. There is a global community doing work with these machines and maker spaces, and it is really a wonderful idea! Precious plastics do require that you pay attention to certain kinds of plastic and does seem to have some limitations.  At the same time, it is a worthy, open-source endeavor and might be of use for many people!  I ultimately decided a different route due primarily to scale: I don’t have the fabrication skills needed to build many of the machines, I don’t know how much use I’d get from them for the investment, and my needs and uses ended up being different.

What I decided to pursue was a building block method called “ecobricks” or “bottle bricks.” This video gives a great short introduction to the concept (complete with the spiritual and meditative aspects of ecobrick making, which I adore). Ecobricks are very simply made: you take a 2-liter soda bottle (readily available in any recycling bin along any street, or simply ask people who drink soda) and fill it with as much plastic as you possibly can. You mash it down with a stick or dowel rod as you fill it, and keep filling it till it is completely full of plastic. This, you use as a building material. In next week’s post, I’m going to go into more depth about how to make ecobricks and how you might build with them (and my own plans for them over the next 2 years.) I’ve been excitedly making ecobricks for about a month now, and I’m surprised at how much waste plastic can go into a single brick.  So stay tuned for more on this next week.

Spiritual Dimensions of Waste

There is no such thing as away!
There is no such thing as away!

It’s easy to live fully immersed in industrialized culture, where waste streams are part of daily life.  Where we throw things away without a thought; where generating waste is literally an automatic behavior.  However, I think that shifting away from these practices, and putting in the effort to do something different, is not only an environmentally conscious act, it is a spiritual one. Thus, I want to conclude by talking a bit about the spiritual dimensions of waste.

I’m an animist druid. I see the world, all of nature, as sacred. I also understand that all-natural things on this planet have spirit. Knowing now, that even my recycling (while well-intentioned) caused the land suffering, has really had me reflect on my current and future actions.  The animals, oceans, rivers, fish, amphibians–all are my sacred brothers and sisters. Throwing away even a single bottle brings my waste into their world. Thus, I see reducing plastic waste and doing all that I can to repurpose it as an absolutely critical part of a nature-centered and earth-honoring spiritual practice. There is no such thing as away–all stays here on this beautiful planet. Let us treat our mother with all the respect and love we can.

Dana O'Driscoll

Dana O’Driscoll has been an animist druid for almost 20 years, and currently serves as Grand Archdruid in the Ancient Order of Druids in America. She is a druid-grade member of the Order of Bards, Ovates, and Druids and is the OBOD’s 2018 Mount Haemus Scholar. She is the author of Sacred Actions: Living the Wheel of the Year through Earth-Centered Spiritual Practice (RedFeather, 2021), the Sacred Actions Journal (RedFeather, 2022), and is the author/illustrator of the Tarot of Trees, Plant Spirit Oracle, and Treelore Oracle. Dana is a certified permaculture designer and permaculture teacher who teaches sustainable living courses and wild food foraging. Dana lives at a 5-acre homestead in rural western Pennsylvania with her partner and a host of feathered and furred friends. She writes at the Druids Garden blog and is on Instagram as @druidsgardenart.

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  1. Reblogged this on Blue Dragon Journal.

    1. Thanks for the reblog! 🙂

    1. Thanks for the reblog! 🙂

  2. Dana this is a wonderful discussion. It has been weighing on my mind as well as in my ever growing supply of stuff that can’t be recycled and that I cannot bring myself to throw into the bin to wind up in the ocean. We generate far less trash than our neighbors but we still struggle with waste management. Thank you so much for sharing your ideas. Nature re-uses all her creatures’ waste as food for something else. It is time humanity learn how to do the same.

    1. Just want to add my gratitude for this blog. It’s extraordinarily good. I most often share your blogs with my grove, but this time I have shared widely with my various communities. Top notch!

      1. Thanks RPatrick! I appreciate your readership and sharing!

    2. Thanks for reading, Lori! I think for me, the key is in the permaculture adage, “waste is a resource.” I work hard to make that a reality! 🙂

  3. You don’t need to stop using paper napkins and paper towels because those can be composted in your compost pile; that’s what I do with them, unless the paper towels are coated with something that can’t be composted like paint. If all they have on them is food, no reason not to compost them. While I use cloth towels and napkins most of the time, I like having the paper versions for some uses. Paper plates can also be composted (I don’t buy them any more but am gradually using up previously purchased plates as well as those that my MIL left in her house when she moved to an apartment). It doesn’t matter if any of these have meats or oily foods around them; that small amount won’t bother the worms or the critters in the compost pile.

    You can use shredded waste paper in worm bins, covering additions of kitchen waste with the shredded paper. Shredded paper should also be compostable, and I will begin using it in the summer and early fall, before I have leaves, to mix with additions of garden waste. I think paper really isn’t that much of an issue for anyone who has a paper shredder and a worm bin and/or compost pile once all the options for reduction and re-use are put in place.

    Plastics are another matter entirely. Eventually bacteria will evolve to eat them, but until then, the only options I see are to reduce and re-use them to the greatest extent possible. I like plastic storage containers for holding foods in the refrigerator and freezer and for bulk storage of grains and beans, and I take very good care of them so I can re-use them many times. Same thing with plastic food storage bags. We have some of these because they are the best for some applications, and I wash and re-use them until they finally develop holes. I despair at how much plastic is in appliances of all sorts. Only thing I can think of here is to avoid any appliance possible and to have the longest-lasting version of whatever appliance I do have, repairing it if possible and when needed.

    Plastic tableware can be washed and re-used. My husband and I have a collection of plastic tableware that we use for outdoor parties. Yes, I wash and re-use the 10 or 20 or 30 plastic forks, knives, spoons, and so on after the event is over and pack them away for the next party. I carry a plastic fork, spoon, and knife wrapped in a paper napkin and placed in a plastic bag in my purse, so I don’t need to take them when I eat out where they are used. After use I put them in the bag and compost the napkin and wash the tableware and bag at home. For out of town travel my husband and I carry sturdier metal tableware and a cloth napkin in cloth bags for eating meals on the road or at camp. We put the food on metal pie plates. I wash the plates and utensils in bathroom sinks.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts and feedback, SL Claire! You’ve offered many great suggestions.

      While I agree about one-use plastics actually being very reusable, in the end, they are still designed as one-use. I like to think about moving away from one-use entirely. And while paper products are easy to compost, I do still try to use alternatives because of deforestation. I use the “cradle to cradle” philosophy for this: where does it come from, how is it used (and re-used) and how will it end its life? So that’s part of why I advocated for eliminating one-use plastics and paper products as much as possible.

    1. Thanks for the reblog!

    1. Thanks for the reblog!

    1. Thanks for the reblog!

  4. I am particularly sensitive about this. I’m really trying to not buy things packed in plastic. And to compost what can be.

    1. Yeah, me too! I think the thing that “gets” me is the hidden plastic. Sometimes, you don’t know there’s plastic in there, or you aren’t given a choice. Hence, my ecobricks :).

      1. Yup same for me, or I don’t find the thing i absolutely need without plastics :/ exemple here you can’t find fresh spinach in bulk ;(

    1. Thanks for the reblog!

  5. Wonderful article! Thank you for all the tips, and for the information.

    1. You are welcome! Thanks for reading :).

  6. Kevin P. Chapple (Blondet)

    I will chastise just a bit.

    This issue of “recycling” to China is not vaguely new. It has not been limited to China but, rather and as you note, includes others many of which are in Asia such as Vietnam, Malaysia, India and more. China and others began saying “no more” a bit over a year ago which has precipitated a portion of this “crisis” which is forcing re-localizing.

    Of course, shipping the waste to Asia added a good deal to contamination of the air as well. E.g., many of the ships run their electric motors on bunker fuel.

    The management of waste, in total, needs to be re-localized including here in Costa Rica. We are working on it as it is a part of Fiscal Reform. I would like, here, to thank you for visiting Costa Rica. Costa Rica is the land of law and diplomacy which, in small part, includes tourism. And, yes, restoration of proper tourism is a part of Fiscal Reform.

    You reference the failure of Pittsburg to accept plastics, glass and even paper. You might be interested in this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Waste-to-energy_plant . This is German technology which was brought into USA including via this plant in Saugus, Massachusetts. I represented the municipalities involved as well as the German engineering company when there were a few “problems” in both the capital structure, operations and the actual construction of this very facility.

    It is true that one consequence is this process generates a little “smoke”, but not that much especially when scrubbers are installed. There is also a residue or ash which must then be managed properly as well. But another bi-product of this incineration process is electric power otherwise needed to run, for example, your computer and mine albeit we need to be prudent in our use. Incineration itself is a natural process that differs in duration, not in the substances broken down.

    While not done in this plant, one can recycle the heat yet again to heat buildings and more. We worked on a plant using this technology in western Massachusetts which did just this. It worked well including reducing monetary costs for all.

    Part of the key was the sorting of trash through the municipal waste collection process, including “recycling” of the 27 cities and towns involved in the Saugus plant. E.g., that which is not appropriate or optimal for use in this kind of facility must also be properly and respectfully managed. So, glass and aluminum bottles and cans need to be separated before the “trash” arrives at this or similar electric generation facilities.

    In about the same time frame, I had the honor of working with a major distributor of beer as Massachusetts enacted the “bottle bill”. In this side of the equation, we instituted the full, and fully separate, recycling of glass beer bottles and aluminum cans to very good and, I will add, properly profitable result for all.

    Please note that I exclude plastic bottles from this as you are stone cold correct that plastic is largely a petrochemical. Among other matters, plastic container particularly those for beverages emit a false female hormone. There is a plastic which is made from corn but it is not a solution. As not much of a side note, I worked in Germany long enough to find “beer or wine in a plastic bottle or cup”, to be obscene in taste alone.

    There is no functional difference in this area between beer and other beverages and more including mayonnaise jars… .

    One key here is full standardization of dimension and color of these containers. However, beer and wine are seldom, if ever, in clear glass. As a fabulous herbalist I know you know this.

    In both cases, one must be sure there is sufficient profit so that capital can be restored at the end of life when new is needed and the labor who manages capital is fairly, not excessively, compensated.

    The same is true of the labor, the people, who are needed to operate all of this. They must receive proper and sufficient education, including a few attorneys, and enough monetary compensation to lead a decent life.

    You may have seen some co-generation of energy on your visits to both Iceland and Costa Rica?

    But even before we get here, you are stone cold correct that we need to, wherever possible, not use this stuff.

    Yes, I have represented paper mills. Paper can also be made from stuff like banana waste – bananas are herbs, not trees and that big stalk dies after the banana blooms and produces its fabulous fruit. The banana waste paper we make here in Costa Rica is simply elegant.

    Cellophane is not plastic. It is made from cellulose or wood: https://www.google.com/search?sourceid=navclient&ie=UTF-8&rlz=1T4VASJ_enCR515CR515&q=cellophane#spf=1566258832905 . While I am not fond of it, rayon is also made from cellulose: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rayon .

    All of this aside, I do prefer cotton and wool, especially wool from Iceland.

    Thank you so very much for your hard work.


    1. Its not new in the sense that its been happening, but it is new in the sense that China’s new policies are radically shaping new recycling policies here in the states. So the way I like to think about it is: what has changed to create new problems? And that’s what has changed. But I totally acknowledge that these issues have been with us (albeit, perhaps, hidden) for a long time.

      Thanks for sharing some of your own experiences! I did see the co-generation plants in Iceland–amazing. There are other good technologies for this stuff, but I think here in the US, its only business as usual. Hopefully some of these larger ideas will circulate and we can begin localizing recyling!

  7. Great job here. I read a lot of blog posts on the topic and I must say your approach is very ingenious and full of useful information. Great read.

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