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The woman teaching the world how to recycle better

Words by Tess Becker

Many of us have rituals in our lives to try and help the planet on an individual level. Some take shorter showers, others try and carpool, for example. But one thing nearly everyone has done at one point or another is recycling. 

But the problem is, not everyone is doing it right, and that’s where someone like Charlotte Dreizen comes in.

Charlotte is the Director of Sustainability and Environment with Plastics Industry Association and spends her time telling people how to better care for the environment, primarily by sharing good recycling practices.

A perfect example of her passion is a Twitter thread she shared about how recycling can end up contaminated. 

Read the full thread:

“I definitely feel like I catch myself sometimes talking too much about contamination,” Charlotte tells Smiley News. “I tried to balance showcasing packages that are, ‘here's something that's recyclable, you should recycle it as well as here,’ and ‘what you should make sure to keep out of your bin at all costs.’”

In her day job, she helps companies understand and find the best ways to recycle and produce responsibly. One example she used was the Coca-Cola Company deciding to change its bottles from green to clear to make the bottle more desirable to recycle. 

“The way I like to explain it is that when we recycle, we're basically getting stuff together that we want a company to buy and use and put in a new product,” Charlotte explains. “So what we do to that material on the front end impacts whether or not someone wants to use it for new material.”

A colored material like the previously green Sprite bottle wouldn’t have as much universal use in a recycling chain whereas clear plastic can be used for theoretically anything, even being dyed if absolutely necessary. 

“So if we make a black container you can't put it into anything besides a new black container – you can't take black plastic and make it transparent and clear again," she says.

To the layman, the Sprite bottle being changed to clear might not seem like a big deal but in the recycling world, it's very important. 

“I think a lot of folks I saw were kind of like, ‘oh, wow, that's really no big deal,’ but it's a huge deal,” Charlotte says. “That means that the millions of bottles that they're producing and people are buying and putting into the recycling stream are now going to be perfectly clear, transparent PET (plastic), the highest value material out there that people can then buy and put into whatever they like.”

Through her personal work and posts on Twitter, Charlotte highlights the mistakes people make when recycling – like the common misconception that you can recycle plastic bags with other recycled products. If a recycled load is too contaminated with products like plastic bags, it drastically slows down the process and, in some cases, stops it.

Specifically, in the case of plastic bags, the material can get into the gears of the recycling machines, halting progress until someone goes in and manually removes them.

The contamination can even be so bad that the recyclable material can’t be used at all and will end up in a landfill. So pay attention to your local recycling rules, as some cities can sort through the contamination easier on the front end, or might utilize different practices depending on the material. 

Charlotte thinks people can make an impact even if they’re not the ones making decisions at a corporate level, she says “vote with your dollars.”

“A few years ago it wasn't the case that we could stop off at a gas station, we need a bottle of water and there's an option for you that's made of 100% recycled plastic or a can of iced tea and that's made from 100% recycled aluminum and now it's really much broader whether you want to buy,” Charlotte says.

“No matter what you're in the market for today if it's carpet curtains or sneakers, you name it. There's almost always a product on the market that is made from recycled material and recycling only exists when we use the material that we recycle.”

This article aligns with the UN SDG Climate Action.

This article aligns with the following UN SDGs