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Davis, California

Sunday, April 14, 2024

Guest Opinion: Re: Recycling

A few years ago, I walked into a Costco which had its tire section at the entrance when a tire came in. As I curiously walked closer to the tires (because hey, I’ve never been to a tire shop before), I was shortly greeted by a noxious odor from the stack of tires, and I walked away.

These tires clearly emitted some serious volatile organic compounds, or VOCs for short, many of which are of concern in the non-toxic side of environmental activism. Yet with a brief visit to many green stores both online and brick-and-mortar, one can encounter objects made from recycled tires, inner tubes and bicycle tires. These objects range from purses, belts, coasters, bags, pencils, and so forth. Car tires have also been recycled into pavement, gym mats, cushioning substrate for playgrounds and as building material in experimental or DIY sustainable housing.

Is it possible that recycling, while normally a very good environmental technology, tends to supercede the health and safety side of being “green”? Tires are not made of natural rubber of course: they are made of synthetic vulcanized rubber made from plenty of mystery synthetic chemicals (something I’d never want close to my skin as a bag, and something I hope wouldn’t pollute the ground).

If you look up online the words “BPA” and “receipt,” a plethora of articles will come up about BPA being found in receipts, sometimes in amounts larger than in certain plastics.  According to some articles, people who work at cash registers have higher BPA levels, and that BPA has been shown to migrate into the skin even deeper than soap and water will go.

There is now strong advice to stop recycling receipts, as BPA has been found in recycled paper products such as pizza boxes and toilet paper. Most places here on campus let you refuse a receipt, but in the bookstore you may need it for a return. During very busy times of the quarter they are checked, and large bins of receipts often result. Even the BPA-free receipts from the Food Co-op may contain another bisphenol chemical like BPB or BPS.

Hopefully, environmental organizations are already aware of this and don’t recycle these products, but the people I asked in the bookstore weren’t sure. If they are recycling receipts, they should highly consider disposing of them differently, and the campus should switch to receipts without any bisphenol chemicals.

What other things should we think a little bit more before reusing, upcycling or recycling?  Many green product stores offer Christmas ornaments, clipboards and other items made from the green motherboards taken from old computers. The motherboards are removed and stripped until they become green boards with funky line patterns and holes on them. I have read plenty of articles about dangerous fire retardant chemicals in computer parts including the motherboards; should these things get a free pass as everyday objects one would touch frequently?

Other products that you should think twice about: recycled wood may contain mystery chemicals used to treat it from bugs and mold. I have seen snack bowls made from vinyl records in eco boutiques — not only is the plastic not food-safe, but it’s vinyl, one of the more questionable plastics. Many upholstery swatches in the Aggie reuse store also have flame retardants. Some people grow plants for food in plastic or newspaper containers. Furthermore we need to think about the inks, adhesives and other substances that hitch along with the paper, plastic and metal products that go in the recycling bin.

Of course I am not saying we shouldn’t recycle or upcycle, just that we be mindful of what and how we do it. A record bowl is a nice decoration, but to eat out of it is another matter; newspaper for paper mâché is fine, but for composting or planting we need to consider pollutants that can get into our food supply or soil. We need to think about the safety of recycled water when it comes to our food supply and surrounding environment.

There is so much to consider. However, it can be quite a mental challenge, and I understand that we have to accept a certain level of risk; otherwise, we’d live inside hazmat suits. I hope there can one day be a better conversation about how and what we recycle.

KATHERINE LIU is a third-year psychology major who can be reached at katliu@ucdavis.edu.



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