By Claire Mollatt
When one thinks about recycling, images such as large processing factories and collection centers come to mind. However, the concept of recycling does not only include the actual breakdown and reuse of raw materials to make the same product. Rather, it is an all-encompassing term used to describe any use of end products for the same or other purposes as the original product. In fact, the term is so flexible that you could, for example, consider giving one of your children’s toys to another family or charity as recycling.
Any action which lengthens the lifespan and usefulness of a product or its packaging is a form of recycling.
Before visiting or living in Costa Rica, foreigners may develop certain expectations as to what the country may be like. One of these expectations, according to some websites about ecotourism and eco-friendly businesses in Costa Rica, might be that recycling and the availability of recycling centers and depots will be prominent and widespread. Living in Heredia, north of San José, one might be disappointed to see that most households do not, in fact, separate their domestic waste in any way. The municipality does not seem to promote or carry out recycling, nor does it encourage households to do so. A few recycling centers do exist, but finding them requires searching. Some larger businesses (especially technological ones) do participate in recycling, but, unfortunately, they do not seem to be the majority.
But it is not just the final destination of our packaging and other waste that we should think about when recycling. Labels on packaging state whether it is biodegradable or recyclable, or both. For example, some of the plastic bags that some bread brands are now sold in are manufactured from biodegradable plastic. Just check the next time you go grocery shopping!
The component of product life cycles that we really should focus on is how we choose the products that we buy. We shouldn’t only focus on whether packaging can be recycled, but also on how much of it can be recycled. For example, instead of buying washing powder in a bottle or box, shoppers can buy refills.
Interestingly, some successful programs in Costa Rica have shown that there really is money to be made from recycling. Recycling initiatives have a huge potential for job creation, in terms of sorting waste and in the reuse of materials to make other products. This should provide a significant incentive for businesses to incorporate recycling into their operations, or for entrepreneurs and artisans to start new projects. A key factor in participation of communities in recycling initiatives is, as always, education and awareness.
Plastic in all its shapes and forms is now one of the Earth’s greatest problems. So much plastic waste has reached our oceans that there are not just one, but two “plastic islands” floating dangerously in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. These islands consist of different kinds of plastic products that have become entangled together over time. Not only do these islands pose a threat to ocean navigation, but also to vulnerable marine life such as sea turtles.
Turtles, which normally eat seaweed and jellyfish, can sometimes mistake a piece of a floating plastic bag for food. Of course, this has devastating consequences, as plastic can either strangle or suffocate turtles, or constrict their digestive systems until they eventually starve.
Some countries are attempting to abate the waste and pollution problems that plastic packets cause by implementing obligatory charges for these bags at vendor outlets. This initiative has been implemented with some success in South Africa, and I was living there when it was first introduced. Initiatives need to have implications on our pockets if they are to successfully change the way people live.
To my delight, I have noticed that some outlets in Costa Rica are now charging for plastic carrier bags and I hope that their actions will be replicated throughout the country.
An example of the success of recycling in a simple way can be found in South Africa. There, many creative artisans have been using plastic packets to weave into stylish handbags, and, of course, receiving the monetary rewards for their creativity. Other ideas that artisans employ include the joining of packaging and containers with wire or string to make anything from baskets to bowls. Hundreds of thousands of artisans make their living from their ingenious recycling ideas in southern Africa in this way.
In fact, when one realizes the potential for reusing products and packaging, the possibilities are endless!
Claire Mollatt is an ecologist and marine and environmental scientist, with a special interest in sustainability and environmental education. She studied in South Africa and grew up in Zimbabwe.