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Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Beyond: Part One

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Photo by Lydia Berglar – Biodegradable materials such as the food scraps in this compost pile require exposure to weather, soil microbes, and air for decomposition to occur. Landfills don’t provide this environment, and therefore, what takes several weeks to decompose in a compost bin takes many years to decompose in a landfill.

Issues surrounding recycling and garbage continue on international, national, and local levels. Communities are reckoning with the expense of running recycling programs, and Dade County is no different, as the Sentinel has been covering.

Jennifer Blair attended the July meeting of the Dade County Board of Commissioners when this topic came up once again, and she offered her opinion during citizen’s participation. She recognized that there is a monetary cost involved with running a recycling program, but she explained why such programs are important.

The Sentinel later sat down with Blair to learn about practical tips that address a question some may have: “I don’t have the time or money to go ‘zero waste,’ so why try at all?” The conversation involved quite a bit of information, so this story is split into two parts.

A myriad of resources about waste, landfills, and trash pollution that go beyond the scope of this article are available online and in libraries, but one local resource is Green Steps Chattanooga. The director, Jimmy Urciuoli, is a Dade County resident who has lived in the greater Chattanooga area for over ten years. The regional organization’s website,, has further information and a TEDx Talk by Urciuoli in which he shares his story, complications with recycling, and the idea of an “imperfect effort.”

Blair summarized her tips with seven words: Reduce, reuse, recycle, refuse, repurpose, repair, and rot. Simplifying even further, she encouraged people to begin with just one area or one waste material.

Blair particularly focused on reducing single-use plastic because glass is infinitely recyclable and breaks down into sand, metals are infinitely recyclable, paper and cardboard are recyclable and biodegradable, and composting provides an easy solution to kitchen scraps. If handled properly by consumers, companies, and governments, Blair said, “all of these things could avoid a landfill in perpetuity.”

She continued, “Contrastingly, every piece of plastic that has ever been made still exists today, whether it’s in a landfill, the ocean, along our roadsides, or in a recycling facility somewhere hoping to be repurposed into another item. I’m not trying to demonize all plastic, but my battle is with single-use plastics. The notion of disposability is a misnomer, because when you throw something away, it doesn’t just disappear.”

Explaining why it’s important to reduce materials sent to landfills, Blair said, “Emory University estimates that approximately one third of all of the materials in Georgia landfills are biodegradable, but biodegradable materials require things like weather, soil microbes, and air for the process of decomposition to take place. In a landfill, they don’t have that. A head of lettuce in your compost bin might take days or weeks to break down, but in a landfill, it takes 25 years. During that entire time, it’s producing methane gas.”

Blair continued, “If we simply divert those materials into environments in which they can decompose, a third of land that would be used as a landfill is opened up for other uses. County Executive Rumley noted that the landfill Dade County utilizes has expanded by 400 acres. That’s 400 acres that nobody will ever hunt on, hike on, fish on, build a home on. If we reduce our exorbitant reliance on landfills, we can slow their expansion.”

Engineers are working on ways to use closed landfills, but challenges include leachate, escaping gasses, and shifting land as decomposition occurs.

Blair added that in addition to the land, large amounts of money and labor are required to collect materials. Burning garbage at home is also not a solution because it is illegal and can release toxic chemicals that can cause long-term health problems.

She questioned, “Why do we think we’re entitled to a plastic bag at the grocery store as a complementary resource? Why do we think we’re entitled to a local government that deals with our waste on our behalf, regardless of how much we produce, regardless of whether we separate materials by biodegradables, recyclables, and waste? I would love to see a plastic bag tax in Dade County and across the country.”

On the positive side of waste reduction, Blair notes that it can improve quality of life. “Oftentimes, you save money and declutter your space. Ultimately, by reducing waste, you’re saving yourself money because you’re saving taxpayer dollars. The municipalities have to pay for excess waste.”

Of the often-cited list, “reduce, reuse, recycle,” Blair said, “Reduction is the first thing and recycling is the last for a reason.” When taking something to a recycling center, there is no guarantee that it will eventually be reused. As we’ve seen in our own county, “This process is costly, time-consuming, and very imperfect. Reduction ensures a piece of waste never enters the recycling chain.”

Blair further explained, “When in doubt, don’t recycle. Wish-cycling is a huge problem because things like receipts and gift wrapping paper often contain plastic. You think they’re paper, but they really should not go in the paper recycling bin. This is why China stopped accepting our recycling. We no longer have much of a market because people recycled improperly.”

For anyone who may think a complete lifestyle overhaul is necessary to reduce waste, Blair encourages even small changes, explaining that it adds up. “Our transfer station estimates that we produce a million pounds of garbage monthly in our small county. If we apply Emory’s estimate to that, one third of it is biodegradable. If everyone in our county composted everything that could be composted, we would reduce that million pounds by a third. Multiply that by a year, now multiply it by all the counties in the state, now multiply it by 50 states, and on and on.”

As for her own story, Blair said, “Ever since I was a little girl, I’ve had an aversion to waste, but I didn’t really know how to address it other than to eat everything on my dinner plate. My sweet mamma instilled in me an appreciation for recyclables as resources.”

Blair and her sister collected aluminum cans, and their mother took them to a machine to exchange the cans for change. Blair’s mother then let the girls use their earnings to buy ice cream.

Blair reflected, “It taught me that aluminum cans, even when you’re done drinking the beverage, are still a resource. Redefining the ways we value resources is of vast importance. Whether it’s a bit of metal, the breathability of the air, the drinkability of the water, or the edibility of our food, these aren’t things we should take for granted.”

In conclusion, Blair said, “I’m no expert; I have no credentials. I just care a lot and try really hard. I certainly have room for improvement, and I am stimulated by that; it’s a challenge that I think is worth accepting.”

Check back next week for practical tips and Blair’s discussion of the seven Rs: Reduce, reuse, recycle, refuse, repurpose, repair, and rot.

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