We Are What We Throw Away

Photo by Ishan @seefromthesky on Unsplash

By MJ Ali

I’m driving down an alley looking at the dozens of overflowing city trash bins and having one of those existential panic attacks while multiplying those bins by hundreds, thousands, millions…


But what am I breathing in? What is that smell and that smell and have we really become so numb that we don’t even think about what we throw out walk on breathe in?

…breathe (anyway).

The concept of how much trash we produce in a day is too much for our brains to grasp. In fact, it’s so overwhelming that many people just choose not to think about it. After all, what can one person do?


When I worked with homeless teens in an independent living program, one of their daily responsibilities was to make sure everything that could be recycled was ending up in the right bin. There was one for metal, one for glass, and one for plastic. The city placed them into separate sections in the truck to bring them to the recycling facility. At least, that’s what we were told.

One of the teens happened to see a recycle truck worker dump all three bins into one big section, and she went on a recycling strike. “Why should I bother if the city is just going to lie to us and make us think we’re recycling?”

But instead of giving up, this homeless 16-year-old mom decided to confront city officials and demand they be more transparent and accountable about their recycling practices. “I’m following through on my responsibilities, and I expect my city to do the same. Not just for me, but for my child.”

This issue went viral (pre-social media, so… wow). It took two years, but policies and practices did change. (Thank you, K.D.!)


This Reading Rainbow episode shows in six minutes what happens to our recycled material. LeVar Burton has always had a gift for making any topic exciting, interesting and positive, and this six-minute episode is no exception.


I hate throwing out Styrofoam. I searched for solutions over the years, and finally found (why doesn’t city recycling list this as a resource on their site?) a company that specializes in recycling Styrofoam and other foam products. So, I’ve started saving up my foam products and will take it to their facility each month, along with my neighbor’s and landlords’ foam.


Plastic shopping bags really do kill. These plastic statistics outline the severity of the problem we’ve created–and can remedy. Do you still shop using the store’s plastic shopping bags? Many shopping centers have recycling stations for plastic bags. Save them up and drop them off on your next shopping trip. If you won’t do that, at least reuse and repurpose them to delay their entry into the ecosystem.

If you’ve convinced yourself you absolutely cannot give up those single-use plastic water bottles, save them up and recycle them. Every town and city has a recycling program you pay for with your own tax dollars, so start using this invaluable resource.

If each of us did just one thing—recycle one plastic bottle, one cardboard box, one glass jar—we’d save countless tons of garbage from our landfills and oceans. And if you believe it doesn’t affect you, think again. Our oceans are a vital part of our ecosystem; we can’t sustain life on this planet without them.

4ocean was started by two surfers on a surf trip in Bali. Devastated by the amount of plastic in the ocean, they decided to do something about it. The company has created its own ocean-saving business ecosystem with local fishermen and many others, creating jobs and tackling head-on what is literally a deadly issue in our oceans. It has become a global movement. “In less than two years, 4ocean has removed 4,097,090 pounds of trash from the ocean and coastlines.”

$20 gets you a cool bracelet made from 100% recycled material. And, that donation also funds the removal of one pound of plastic from the ocean and coastlines.

Changing habits starts with looking at what we’re doing, both in our homes and in our businesses.
If you really believe you can’t afford less than two minutes a day to recycle, I guarantee you can’t afford not to.

Changing just one thing is a lot easier than you think, and makes a world of difference. Literally.

Spread the word. Share this post!