Waste in the food and drink industry is a serious problem for the planet. In addition to the estimated 1.3 billion tonnes of produce that gets lost every year, modern food relies extensively on environmentally damaging fossil fuels for transportation and dangerous plastics for storage. It’s a cocktail that could spell disaster if something doesn’t change.
The success of several international awareness campaigns, coupled with a growing sense of moral duty, has finally guilted many of us have into making a few cursory changes. Usually, these mean buying a small green bin bag, filling it with anything that looks fairly reusable and subsequently feeling smug about the situation. Problem solved. However, it turns out that our paltry recycling efforts could be creating more trouble than they’re worth.
A great example of our well-intentioned, accidental idiocy is our attitude towards aluminium drinks cans. Ever since Quint crushed his beer on board the Orca before being chomped by a massive shark, crumpling metal in your bare hands has always been an exceptionally manly thing to do. From a recycling point of view, it even makes some sort of sense. Surely, a smaller can must make it easier to recycle? However, as was pointed out by reports in both Pop Science and Lifehacker this week, squashing your drinks can have unintended consequences.
According to the experts who handle our waste for a living, crushing or flattening cans actually makes them infinitely more difficult to sort correctly during the recycling process. Because they are smaller and slimmer, crushed cans can easily slip through gaps in machines, contaminating other recyclable materials and generally making a nuisance of themselves.
In an interview with Lifehacker, senior director of public affairs at the Aluminum Association, Matt Meenan, revealed that a flattened soda can can easily be accidentally sorted as “paper” - compromising an entire payload of otherwise reusable waste. As he put it, “Crushed aluminum cans may fall through the spaces of the sorting equipment and either be lost entirely or improperly sorted.”
In some communities, where a multi-stream recycling system may be in place, crushing cans actually will not make a difference, since all materials should already be separated before making it to the plant. However, according to a 2015 report by Smart Cities Council, an estimated nine of 10 American cities use a single-stream system, meaning that for most American citizens the problem of incorrectly recycled cans is very real.
For most of us, recycling is a fairly absent minded way to feel good about how well we’re looking after the planet. Unfortunately, being environmentally conscientious requires a lot more effort than flinging everything inside a coloured bin and hoping for the best. The truth is, if we want to make a difference, sacrifices have to me made. Not crushing cans and pretending you’re in a scene from “Jaws” is a pretty minimal place to start.