This year, my nephew is graduating from preschool, my niece is graduating from 8th grade, and a number of friends in my social media network have kids graduating from high school and college. So you might say that graduation is on my mind. In particular, it’s hard to listen to the inspiring speeches about how far the graduates have come, without thinking about how the world’s changed in their lifetime as well.
By my math, most members of the high-school class of 2017 were born in the year 2000. That seems recent, but also far in the past! In the world of recycling and environmental issues, much has changed during the lifetime of today’s graduates.
Here are just a few of the advances we’ve seen in the world of recycling and sustainability efforts, all within the lifetime of the Class of 2017.
1. Single-Stream Recycling: Recycling used to be a harder task, requiring sorting and separating of different materials like paper, plastic, glass and metal. But in 2001, advances from recycling company Waste Management enabled many major facilities to begin offering single-stream recycling, where all recyclables could be collected in the same container, to be sorted at the recycling facility. While this method has its drawbacks in terms of contamination of some batches of materials, its invention did help increase recycling by around 30 percent.
2. E-Waste Recycling: Recognizing, with the increasing rate of technological advances, that obsolete technology would quickly pile up in our landfills, Dell Computers led the way in electronics recycling by offering free recycling for all of its computer equipment in 2006. Other manufacturers have since followed suit, and we’ve also seen the emergence of more facilities that can repurpose electronic components.
3. City-Mandated Composting. San Francisco was the first city to mandate composting in 2009, and it collects an estimated 600 tons of compostable matter daily. It’s one of more than 90 cities, including New York City, Seattle, Portland, OR; and Boulder, CO, to have a city-run composting program for its residents. Programs like these save space in landfills, help reduce greenhouse gases (that are caused by organic matter decomposing anaerobically in landfills), and help turn food waste and other organic matter into usable soil for gardens.
4. Electric Cars Become Mainstream. The Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf both started appearing at car dealerships around 2010. With favorable lease terms and tax credits, these cars became popular among early adaptors and eco-conscious drivers. With their emergence, charging stations also became more common. These cars help reduce our reliance on petroleum and other fuels, and they can reduce emissions. However, because of their electric battery, the renewability of the fuel for your electric (EV) or hybrid-electric car (HPEV) is only as good as the source of the electricity in your state. If your state gets its electricity primarily from burning coal, for instance, that may not be much better than burning gasoline.
5. First 100% Plant-Derived Plastic Bottle. In 2015, Coca-Cola introduced its first PET bottle made entirely from plant-based plastics, which not only is made from renewable materials but also is fully recyclable. While bioplastics have been around since 1926, the beverage giant’s PlantBottle, along with Reebok’s plant-based sneaker — derived from corn and cotton, show that this type of plastic can actually become a mainstream consumer-products material. However, these products being “plant-based” doesn’t mean they biodegrade like plants. Once they are made into plastic, these materials still need to be recycled properly.
6. Plastic Bags Are Illegal In Some States. In 2016, California was the first state to enact a statewide ban on plastic grocery bags. Certain cities, such as Santa Fe and Austin, have bans in place, and it’s likely that more cities and states will follow suit to cut down on the enormous waste and environmental damage caused by plastic bags.
We’ve come a long way, but we also have a long way to go to create a materials- and resource-use system that can preserve our planet’s ecological balance enough, so that the grandchildren of the class of 2017 might have the chance to live long and healthy lives too.