The Trials and Tribulations of Transit | The American Word

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The Trials and Tribulations of Transit


Jaclyn Merica | 3/18/16 11:48pm
| Updated 4/21/16 4:32pm

Jaclyn Merica /
American Word Magazine

I’m not going to lie: Spring Break was a major bummer for waste-free me. This was my first time leaving the comfort of my waste-free home for longer than two days. I knew being away from my beloved compost bin and homemade products was going to be challenging, but I hadn’t anticipated just how challenging it turned out to be. My entire purse was filled with receipts, I couldn’t eat at my favorite Thai restaurant and my grandparents thought I was crazy because I created a pile of organic waste in their side yard for the coyotes to eat.

Things began going south when I flew out West to see my family. Airports have a sort of “in-your-face wastefulness” that’s nauseating for anyone dedicated to lessening the recyclable products reaching landfills. Trash bins overflowed with plastic bottles while recycling bins were filled with non-recyclable cans. I shamelessly sorted through the bins while I waited to board my flight and ignored the stares from fellow passengers. Once onboard, I was trapped in a wasteful prison for the next five hours. I’ve flown enough to notice a common trend among airlines. After the food and beverage service, flight attendants come around with a single bag to collect napkins, plastic utensils, organic waste and cups. In my single flight, I saw at least six bags of recyclable aluminum, plastic and paper products thrown in together. Reports have estimated each passenger produces a quarter pound of waste per flight. In 2010, Green America reported U.S. airlines “discard[ed] enough aluminum cans every year to build nearly 58 Boeing 747s and enough paper to fill a football field–size hole 230 feet deep.” That’s over 4,000 tons of aluminum and 70,000 tons of paper. Such a number is staggering.

Up until six years ago, the airline industry had little economic incentive to go green, and there was far less push from the government. Airlines wanting to reduce waste were limited due to the airports’ inability to discard recycling. Most airports were not built with sustainability in mind and are not equipped to distinguish recyclable and non-recyclable waste. Yet, even airlines fail to incentivize recycling. I flew on American Airlines, which received a D grade overall for sustainable efforts in 2010. However, it received a B for employee education of recycling and waste management. The company took active steps to educate its employees, who were unreceptive. That means the awareness is there, but the motivation is not. In the last six years, American Airlines has made more concentrated efforts to reduce waste, but they still have a long way to go. On their website, American Airlines claims to recycle plastic and aluminum from in-flight beverage services, but I was told by my flight attendant the bottles were not recycled. Delta and Southwest boast about their increased recycling efforts. Their reduction of recycled waste is significant, but they still generate more hazardous waste than recyclable waste, which seems disheartening. U.S. Airways, the notoriously least sustainable airline, has begun recycling 27.8 million pounds of paper, plastic and aluminum company wide, which is an exponential change from the one million cups thrown away every six hours within the company in 2010.

With a bag of my recyclable waste from the flight in hand, I arrived in Las Vegas eager to be comfortably waste free at my grandparents’ home. But that was more easily said than done. While my grandparents had a few recycling bins for mixed paper and plastic, there were some products I couldn’t dispose of properly during my stay. My grandparents’ antibiotics came with adhesive stickers, some food was packaged and their hygiene products were in non-recyclable containers. For my brief stay, I allowed myself to throw away products of theirs in moderation, but I tried to find ways to reuse as well. When refilling their prescriptions, I brought the plastic containers to the pharmacy for the pharmacist to reuse, but she said that wasn’t allowed. She offered to throw away the vile for me, and when I asked if she was able to recycle it, she dubiously said no. Impasses such as that are what contribute to mass amounts of waste being improperly disposed into landfills.

When I headed back to D.C., I had a few pounds of recyclable and compostable goods in my bag to discard back on campus. Nevada is seemingly less eager about sustainability than my friends and I are at AU. In fact, my world and social circle in D.C. seem to be an anomaly all together. A few weeks ago, I overheard someone say that they would recycle their food container, but the bin was just too far away. Such negligence is infuriating and worrisome. The infrastructure to consciously care about the environment is readily available but being actively ignored. Advocacy and knowledge are integral to reducing waste unnecessarily heading to landfills. Yet, the bottom line is, people have to consciously care about reducing waste in order to implement such changes. A few extra feet to the trash bin can make the difference in a bottle being reused and it sitting in a landfill for 450 years until it decomposes.

To put it into perspective, here is my own trash I’ve accumulated in nearly two months. By consciously considering my environmental impact and ways to cut down on waste, I’ve been able to produce three pieces of trash in seven weeks. My trash consists of two birth control packets (I’m currently working to change contraceptives so I no longer rely on monthly packets) and a Clif Bar from a very desperate and hungry late night study session. Even to myself, it’s surprising how easy it has been to convert to a waste-free lifestyle. All it takes is to genuinely care about the cause, and the education will follow thereafter.