For those who love to recycle,

this may hurt.

“When something seems too good to be true, most of the time, it is and in the case of our current single stream recycling system, it most certainly is.”

What if I told you that much of what you toss in the recycling bin does not get recycled? That the recycling bin is not the magic portal we all believe it to be? We have been fooled. The reality is that recycling is currently a complex industry. What most people don’t understand is that recycling is not easy. It takes a lot of work to recycle materials. To make it profitable, large sophisticated pieces of machinery and labor are required to sort through the conglomeration that is the recycling waste stream. It is expensive and often unfeasible to recycle your greasy Styrofoam food container If you’re like me, you probably just assumed that whatever goes in the grey bin is recycled. To understand the reasoning behind this unfortunate reality of our recycling system, we first need a little bit of background.

In the past, recycling was done for economic reasons or for survival. Just look at all the homeless toting around their massive collections of bottles and cans. When you don’t have access to Home Depot and Walmart, stocked with what seems to be a limitless supply of anything and everything you could ever need, you don’t have a lot of options especially in a consumer society like ours.

The 1970s birthed a rapid paradigm shift towards environmental conservation and protection. Then, during the late 80s, there was the landfill crisis and the infamous garbage barge. There was too much garbage and nowhere to put it all and something had to change. Curbside recycling programs begin to spring up around the nation as a growing concern for the health of our planet began to spread like wildfire. Now ask anyone today why they recycle and most will tell you they do it to protect mother earth. But, most of us do not understand what it really takes to recycle the stuff we throw in our gray (or blue) bin.

Today, recycling is made easy…… on our end, that is. With our single stream recycling system, we can toss paper, glass, plastic and metal in a single gray bin and we walk away with a feeling of satisfaction that we are saving the earth! When something seems too good to be true though, most of the time, it is and in the case of our current single stream recycling system, it most certainly is. You wouldn’t want to follow that garbage truck and see where it all ends up.

The reality is, recycling is not free. It is not outside the natural laws of economics. It is an industry and it must be profitable or no one will participate. Labor is required to separate the recycling waste stream by material type as well as maintain the machines that assist in the sorting process. On top of that, additional labor is needed to convert the dirty recycled material into new clean material or product. In addition, not all materials hold the same value and it is costly to separate them from the valuable ones. The types of materials that are recycled varies by community. For example, most municipalities do not have programs in place for recycle of plastic bags and they will be separated out at the recycling center and either sent on a costly journey to a specialized recycling center or sent to the landfill. Most commonly accepted materials are plastics labeled with a #1 (PET), which soda bottles are made of, or a #2 (HDPE), which shampoo and detergent bottles are made of. These plastics currently have a strong market and are profitable. Mixing in materials like PS (Styrofoam), plastic bags and composites, can be a nightmare for recycling facilities. For example, plastic bags are light and stringy and cause problems when they blow around the recycling facility and gum up the sorting machines. This takes extra work and brings down the value of the waste stream.

In theory, recycling is a highly profitable business, but throwing everything plastic, metal and paper into one bin is likely the biggest issue holding back it’s prosperity. While, there now exist some very sophisticated machinery, capable of sorting materials quickly, a manufacturer is ultimately going to buy materials from the cheapest source and virgin materials are still often cheaper than recycled materials. In time, I hope that recycling systems will exist for all materials and that the sorting issue can be solved and most importantly I hope that people will learn to understand and appreciate the complexity of the recycling infrastructure and those who sustain it.

Sources-

- https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/dc-politics/american-recycling-is-stalling-and-the-big-blue-bin-is-one-reason-why/2015/06/20/914735e4-1610-11e5-9ddc-e3353542100c_story.html?utm_term=.a541c00e969f

- http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/blog/how-homeless-recyclers-make-living-redeeming-recyclables/

- https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/29/science/three-headaches-for-the-recycling-industry.html?_r=0

- http://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/recycling2.htm

- https://www.forbes.com/sites/modeledbehavior/2014/04/26/profits-not-good-intentions-drive-the-global-recycling-industry/#56fa9b04105f

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