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.

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Amazon

Shopping sustainably is increasingly important given the severity of the climate crisis, but sometimes it's hard to know where to turn. Thankfully, Amazon is making it a little easier to browse thousands of products that have one or more of 19 sustainability certifications that help preserve the natural world.

The online retailer recently announced Climate Pledge Friendly, a program to make it easier for customers to discover and shop for more sustainable products. To determine the sustainability of a product, the program partnered with third-party certifications, including governmental agencies, nonprofits, and independent labs.

With a selection of items spanning grocery, household, fashion, beauty, and personal electronics, you'll be able to shop more sustainably not just for the holiday season, but throughout the year for your essentials, as well.

You can browse all of the Climate Pledge Friendly products here, labeled with an icon and which certification(s) they meet. To get you on your way to shopping more sustainably, we've rounded up eight of our favorite Climate Pledge Friendly-products that will make great gifts all year long.

Amazon

Jack Wolfskin Women's North York Coat

Give the gift of warmth and style with this coat, available in a variety of colors. Sustainability is built into all Jack Wolfskin products and each item comes with a code that lets you trace back to its origins and understand how it was made.

Bluesign: Bluesign products are responsibly manufactured by using safer chemicals and fewer resources, including less energy, in production.


Amazon

Amazon All-new Echo Dot (4th Gen)

For the tech-obsessed. This Alexa smart speaker, which comes in a sleek, compact design, lets you voice control your entertainment and your smart home as well as connect with others.

Reducing CO2: Products with this certification reduce their carbon footprint year after year. Certified by the Carbon Trust.


Amazon

Burt's Bees Family Jammies Matching Holiday Organic Cotton Pajamas

Get into the holiday spirit with these fun matching PJs for the whole family. Perfect for pictures that even Fido can get in on.

Global Organic Textile Standard: This certifies each step of the organic textile supply chain against strict ecological and social standards. Each product with this certification contains 95%-100% organic content.

Amazon

Naturistick 5-Pack Lip Balm Gift Set

With 100% natural ingredients that are gentle on ultra-sensitive lips, this gift is a great gift for the whole family.

Compact by Design (Certified by Amazon): Products with this certification are packaged without excess air and water, which reduces the carbon footprint of shipping and packaging.


Amazon

Arus Women's GOTS Certified Organic Cotton Hooded Full Length Turkish Bathrobe

For those who love to lounge around, this full-length organic cotton bathrobe is the way to go. Available in five different colors, it has comfortable cuffed sleeves, a hood, pockets, and adjustable belt.

Global Organic Textile Standard: This certifies each step of the organic textile supply chain against strict ecological and social standards. Each product with this certification contains 95%-100% organic content.

Amazon

L'Occitane Extra-Gentle Vegetable Based Soap

This luxe soap, made with moisturizing shea butter and scented with verbena, is perfect for the self-care obsessed.

Compact by Design (Certified by Amazon): Products with this certification are packaged without excess air and water, which reduces the carbon footprint of shipping and packaging.

Amazon

Goodthreads Men's Sweater-Knit Fleece Long-Sleeve Bomber

For the fashionable men in your life, this fashion-forward knit bomber is an excellent choice. The sweater material keeps it cozy and warm, while the bomber jacket-cut, zip front, and rib-trim neck make it look elevated.

Recycled Claim Standard 100: Products with this certification use materials made from at least 95% recycled content.

Amazon

All-new Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote

Make it even easier to access your favorite movies and shows this holiday season. The new Fire TV Stick lets you use your voice to search across apps. Plus it controls the power and volume on your TV, so you'll never need to leave the couch! Except for snacks.

Reducing CO2: Products with this certification reduce their carbon footprint year after year. Certified by the Carbon Trust.

Wikiimages by Pixabay, Dr. Jacqueline Antonovich/Twitter

The 1776 Report isn't just bad, it's historically bad, in every way possible.

When journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones published her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 Project for The New York Times, some backlash was inevitable. Instead of telling the story of America's creation through the eyes of the colonial architects of our system of government, Hannah-Jones retold it through the eyes of the enslaved Africans who were forced to help build the nation without reaping the benefits of democracy. Though a couple of historical inaccuracies have had to be clarified and corrected, the 1619 Project is groundbreaking, in that it helps give voice to a history that has long been overlooked and underrepresented in our education system.

The 1776 Report, in turn, is a blaring call to return to the whitewashed curriculums that silence that voice.

In September of last year, President Trump blasted the 1619 Project, which he called "toxic propaganda" and "ideological poison" that "will destroy our country." He subsequently created a commission to tell the story of America's founding the way he wanted it told—in the form of a "patriotic education" with all of the dog whistles that that phrase entails.

Mission accomplished, sort of.

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If the past year has taught us nothing else, it's that sending love out into the world through selfless acts of kindness can have a positive ripple effect on people and communities. People all over the United States seemed to have gotten the message — 71% of those surveyed by the World Giving Index helped a stranger in need in 2020. A nonprofit survey found 90% helped others by running errands, calling, texting and sending care packages. Many people needed a boost last year in one way or another and obliging good neighbors heeded the call over and over again — and continue to make a positive impact through their actions in this new year.

Upworthy and P&G Good Everyday wanted to help keep kindness going strong, so they partnered up to create the Lead with Love Fund. The fund awards do-gooders in communities around the country with grants to help them continue on with their unique missions. Hundreds of nominations came pouring in and five winners were selected based on three criteria: the impact of action, uniqueness, and "Upworthy-ness" of their story.

Here's a look at the five winners:

Edith Ornelas, co-creator of Mariposas Collective in Memphis, Tenn.

Edith Ornelas has a deep-rooted connection to the asylum-seeking immigrant families she brings food and supplies to families in Memphis, Tenn. She was born in Jalisco, Mexico, and immigrated to the United States when she was 7 years old with her parents and sister. Edith grew up in Chicago, then moved to Memphis in 2016, where she quickly realized how few community programs existed for immigrants. Two years later, she helped create Mariposas Collective, which initially aimed to help families who had just been released from detention centers and were seeking asylum. The collective started out small but has since grown to approximately 400 volunteers.