Daily Herald opinion: We need to do a lot, and we need a lot of help, to recycle plastics

They've become a nasty, maybe even dangerous problem we must help solve and we need help solving

This editorial is the consensus opinon of the Daily Herald Editorial Board

Plastics are everywhere.

No, not just in restaurants' takeout packaging or the containers holding all the beverages we buy from the store and take home, or in Amazon shipments. But also in our water, air, maybe even our food.

You may have seen the news reports of big blocks of supposedly recycled plastic floating in the ocean, or one a few years ago about 88 pounds of plastic found in the stomach of a dead whale. That's bad enough. But plastics that find their way into our landfills break down into microplastics - pieces smaller than 5 millimeters - that can spread to our environment. And voila, they're everywhere.

There are a lot of reasons. We're still lousy at recycling, for one. We use a lot of plastic, then we throw a lot of it away - such that, as our climate reporter Jenny Whidden found in her report Sunday, our plastic recycling rate in Illinois is only 8.1%. Not even a tenth of it gets recycled.

Then, even when we do recycle, we often do it wrong. Only certain kinds of plastic are recyclable, first of all, and we're not supposed to mix them in our recycling bins. Key rules: Plastic grocery bags don't go in those bins (grocery stores may have bins just for them instead), single-use plastics aren't recyclable, putting all your recyclables in a trash bag inside your recycling bin doesn't work, and you must clean the gunk off all your recyclables.

It's not all our fault. The rules may be different depending on your hometown, or even residential complex, not to mention your workplace. And some governments and waste companies are better about educating us on the rules than others.

A regular communication campaign is needed to constantly remind all of us how exactly to recycle, because, unfortunately, it's complicated. Schaumburg, for example, just changed its waste hauler, and on the new recycling bins homeowners got is a simple but helpful sticker on the lid that shows what really can be recycled and what can't. It's one way to make recycling simpler.

Guidance may be supplied in village newsletters or flyers supplied by the waste hauler, but then a lot adds to the confusion. Are apartment residents even able to recycle? What can we really put in the recycling bin at the Starbucks?

There are things we can do. You can avoid or reuse straws and not buy things in plastic cups. Or resist food or products in a lot of plastic packaging. Experts suggest making one little zero-waste move, mastering it, then trying another.

Then other things are suggested on a systemic level. Can single-use plastics be banned, as Canada is doing? Maine has implemented a policy putting the onus, and some cost, of recycling on producers.

It's so complicated right now that it could come down to every suburb making rules. But it's important that we all work to figure it out. If we say that it's not such a big deal, well, with plastic everywhere including maybe even in our food and later our stomachs, we'll literally be eating our words.

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