Recycling was supposed to help save the planet. It's past time for us to rethink that idea.
Photo by Vivianne Lemay on Unsplash

Those of us who want a sustainable future for our grandkids try really hard to do the right things for our planet. We grew up internalizing the three R's–Reduce, Reuse, Recycle—but it appears that one of those Rs has not lived up to its promise.

We all know that plastic and excessive packaging of all kinds are problematic, but most of us don't worry about it too much because most of it can be recycled anyway, right? We cheerfully put our yogurt containers and pizza boxes and egg cartons into our curbside recycling bin, confident that we've done our part for the environment by not throwing them into a landfill.

We imagine our municipalities taking that recycling to some kind of local recycling plant, where our plastic and paper gets transformed into shiny new eco-friendly products. Right?


Wrong. That's not at all what happens, and never has been. Today, much of what we're putting into our recycling bins isn't being recycled at all—even the stuff that theoretically can be. Instead, it's ending up in landfills or polluting our oceans.

RELATED: A dead whale just washed ashore with 88 pounds of plastic waste in its stomach. This needs to stop.

How is that possible, when we've spent so much time and energy convincing Americans to recycle?

Part of the problem is that instead of recycling these things ourselves, we've spent decades shipping tons and tons of our trash across the ocean to be recycled in China and SE Asia. But last year, China announced that would no longer take most of our recyclables, including mixed paper and most plastics. That cuts out most of our household recycling, and without China buying our waste anymore, there's nowhere for it to go.

Since 2018, we've been shipping more of our plastic to other developing nations in Southeast Asia, including Thailand and Vietnam. But according to Unearthed, the investigative arm of Greenpeace, those countries don't have the environmental infrastructure to handle that waste responsibly. Some of that recycling ends up being dumped into the ocean.

Why don't we just recycle our waste ourselves? Compared to the vast amounts of recyclable materials we dispose of, we have very few recycling plants in the U.S.

According to an article by Alana Semuels in The Atlantic, that's partially individual Americans' own fault. We are notoriously terrible at keeping track of what can be recycled and what can't, so we toss all kind of non-recyclable items in the recycling bin to let others (up to now, low-paid workers in China) figure out. We're also bad at keeping recyclables separated and clean the way they have to be in order to be go through the recycling process. Since it's cost prohibitive to hire people to sort and clean recyclables, waste management companies are telling people they either have to pay a lot more for recycling or ditch it altogether.

And because money is money, most people are choosing the latter. And many localities aren't even offering people the choice.

What does all of this mean for the average American who wants to do right by the planet? First, it means we need to focus a whole lot more on reducing and reusing and stop putting all of our eggs into the recycling basket. It means avoiding plastic whenever and wherever we can and not assuming we can just toss it into a blue bin somewhere. It means utilizing reusable water bottles, shopping bags, dishes and silverware, etc. as a matter of habit, not as an afterthought.

We can also make choices with our wallets. Only buy things when absolutely necessary, and try to buy used first. Whenever possible, choose items without packaging, and when packaging seems unnecessary or excessive, question the companies who are using it. Until we pressure the powers that be to stop wrapping everything we use, we're going to continue to pollute our planet. All of that plastic eventually has to go somewhere.

RELATED: If you don't think twice about the plastic strap around a package, here's why you should.

Pretend that paper is a limited commodity. Pretend that plastic is literally destroying our home. Pretend that it's not normal to consume in excess and that very little is actually garbage.

Basically, we need to completely overhaul our approach to waste, from our own kitchens to the corporations that package what we purchase. But at the very least, we need to stop thinking of recycling as a hallmark of sustainability. We face many environmental questions in the 21st century, and it's clear that we aren't going to find the answers in the bottom of the recycling bin.

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Vanna White appeared on "The Price Is Right" in 1980.

Vanna White has been a household name in the United States for decades, which is kind of hilarious when you consider how she gained her fame and fortune. Since 1982, the former model and actress has made millions walking back and forth turning letters (and later simply touching them—yay technology) on the game show "Wheel of Fortune."

That's it. Walking back and forth in a pretty evening gown, flipping letters and clapping for contestants. More on that job in a minute…

As a member of Gen X, television game shows like "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Price is Right" send me straight back to my childhood. Watching this clip from 1980 of Vanna White competing on "The Price is Right" two years before she started turning letters on "Wheel of Fortune" is like stepping into a time machine. Bob Barker's voice, the theme music, the sound effects—I swear I'm home from school sick, lying on the ugly flowered couch with my mom checking my forehead and bringing me Tang.

This video has it all: the early '80s hairstyles, a fresh-faced Vanna White and Bob Barker's casual sexism that would never in a million years fly today.

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